Kennett Heritage Center

American Voting System

From: The New Yorker     

Annals of Democracy  

October 13, 2008 issue

“Rock, Paper, Scissors: How We Used to Vote”     By Jill Lepore

The Constitution, drafted in 1787, left the conduct of elections up to the states: “The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” 

Americans used to vote with their voices—viva voce—or with their hands or with their feet. Yea or nay. Raise your hand. All in favor of Jones, stand on this side of the town common; if you support Smith, line up over there. In the colonies, as in the mother country, casting a vote rarely required paper and pen. Colonial Pennsylvanians commonly voted by tossing beans into a hat. Paper voting wasn’t meant to conceal anyone’s vote; it was just easier than counting beans.

Our forebears considered casting a “secret ballot” cowardly, underhanded, and despicable

It probably did not occur to the framers of the constitution, that many of the towns might become so populous as to make it convenient to use printed votes.

Early paper voting was a hassle. You had to bring your own ballot, a scrap of paper. You had to remember and know how to spell the name of every candidate and the office.

Shrewd partisans began bringing pre-written ballots to the polls and handing them out with a coin or two. Doling out cash wasn’t illegal; it was getting out the vote.

Political parties, whose rise to power was made possible by the rise of the paper ballot, stepped in. Party leaders began to print ballots, often in newspapers: either long strips, listing an entire slate, or pages meant to be cut in pieces, one for each candidate.  Undeniably, party tickets led to massive fraud and intimidation. A candidate had to pay party leaders a hefty sum to put his name on the ballot and to cover the costs of printing tickets, buying votes and hiring thugs to tussle with voters.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, someone came up with a startling idea for the government to provide the ballots.  Victoria, Australia’s Electoral Act of 1856 minutely detailed the conduct of elections, requiring that election officials print ballots and erect a booth or hire rooms, to be divided into compartments where voters could mark those ballots secretly, and barring anyone else from entering the polling place.

The most zealous American champion of the Australian ballot, Henry George, sailed to Australia in 1855 and returned to the US in 1858. He first advocated the Australian ballot in December, 1871, a few months after the New York Times began publishing its investigation into the gross corruption of elections in New York City under the party boss, William Magear “Boss” Tweed.

Massachusetts passed the nation’s first statewide Australian-ballot law in 1888.  It served as the model for nearly all that followed.  New York, adopted the reform in 1890; Pennsylvania in 1891.

The Australian ballot provided an elegant solution to problems created by the sudden and dramatic expansion of the electorate in a time of vast economic inequality.  It brought voting indoors, contained it in compartments, and made it safer, quieter and more orderly. Many kinds of corruption, violence, and intimidation ended.

From Harrisburg Daily Independent

5 September 1892

Building Election Booths

"It Looks as Though the Apparatus Would Not Be Finished in Time"

There is danger that the contractors will not be able to furnish by November all the appliances necessary to conduct the election under the new ballot law. Twenty-three thousand booths and annexes will be necessary. The contractors have been working day and night on these appliances for the past three months, and have been able to furnish only about 13,000, leaving a balance of 10,000 to be made within the next sixty days…..

The contract for supplying the state with booths was several months ago awarded by the state commission to the Marietta Manufacturing Company of Marietta and the Ira T. Clement company of Sunbury. Four fifths of the booths however are made under the direction of the Marietta concern. They have four large factories in Pennsylvania, one in Michigan and one in Wisconsin.

The counties which have been supplied with booths and annexes and the number furnished each follows: Chester, 503

The hardware for the booths is also made by the Marietta concern, which has been licensed by the George D. Bernard & Co., of St. Louis, patentees of the Elsner booth, after which the booth adopted by the state commission is patterned. All booths, ballot boxes, guard rails and tables are shipped by the contractors to the boards of county commissioners, at the county seats, and distributed under their direction.

Article has more info on the actual paper ballot not conforming to section 14 of the 1891 ballot law.

From “Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science"vol. 2, p. 754 

May 1892

The Pennsylvania Law “provides that the names of all candidates shall be officially published before the election and printed at public expense on official ballots, which alone can be used; that the voting shall be done in a room of adequate size, where the voter shall receive his ballot and mark it secretly at a screened desk; that the number on each ballot be concealed by pasting down the corner (so as to prevent any unauthorized use of the number to find out who has cast any given ballot); that for further security the lists to which these numbers refer shall be sealed up before the box is opened; that any serious defect in printing of ballots shall be ground for holding a new election, and that any tampering with nomination certificates or papers or with the ballots, or any interference with voters or violation of the secrecy of the ballot shall be severely punished.”