Voting in America
21 artifacts in this set
After the American Revolution, leaders of the new republic did not agree about how political elections should be run. They used deliberately vague language in the Constitution and chose to leave decisions to the individual states. Voting methods developed in a piecemeal way, and the American voting experience varied from place to place.
At first, only white male property owners and taxpayers could vote. Over time, reforms in most states expanded the electorate. By 1840, nearly 80 percent of adult white males headed eagerly to the polls. On election day, an often unruly affair, candidates and campaigners solicited support. Votes were often cast by voice or paper ballot and recorded -- in public -- by local officials.
During the mid-1800s, Americans used preprinted ballots to vote. These "party tickets" listed only candidates from a single party (though bold voters could scratch out or paste over candidates' names). Political parties prepared and distributed these ballots, sometimes through local partisan newspapers.
There were few official guidelines, so the design and format of "party tickets" varied greatly. The system could be confusing -- and it presented opportunities for fraud. Motivated party operatives and individual voters found ways to cast multiple votes.
Voting in the 19th century was not a secret process, and intimidation was a common tactic on all sides. Casting a "party ticket" meant everyone knew who you voted for. This could result in "thrilling" disagreements at polling places, such as this scene from an 1864 election in Philadelphia.
African American men won the right to vote after the Civil War, with the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But when the Reconstruction Era ended, many states -- especially in the South -- found ways to disenfranchise Black and poor white voters. Poll and property taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements prevented many people from voting.
Toward the end of the 19th century, a growing electorate and organized political "machines" -- groups like the Tammany Society that used violence and intimidation to manipulate elections in New York City -- worried election officials. To make elections honest, reformers introduced changes to ballots and vote counting methods.
Governments began to provide ballot boxes and took over the printing and distribution of ballots from political parties. After 1888, blanket ballots gradually replaced party tickets. Originally used in South Australia in the 1850s, blanket ballots listed all candidates from all parties. Some, like this 1912 ballot, included party symbols to help guide voters' selections.
Improvements in ballot box design further secured the secret ballot. Narrow openings and locking mechanisms helped prevent dishonest voters or election officials from tampering with ballots. As a physical manifestation of the American political system, the ballot box became an icon of democracy itself.
In the early 20th century, women and men alike joined the already decades-long fight for women's suffrage, or equal voting rights. Suffragists delivered speeches, staged parades, and distributed items with symbolic imagery. Their efforts made national headlines and rallied support for the cause, contributing to the adoption of a constitutional amendment that granted women suffrage in 1920.
Organizations like the League of Women Voters -- founded in 1920 by leaders of the women's suffrage movement -- pushed for continual election reform. These groups also encouraged citizens to take an active role in government and sought to educate the electorate about political issues.
This instructional ballot listed candidates (in rows) and parties (in columns) to inform voters of their choices for national, state, and local offices. It also provided information about how to use a gear and lever voting machine. These machines reached their peak of impact in the 1960s, when an estimated 65 percent of all voters used them.
Gear and lever voting machines combined clear ballot design with the privacy of voting booths. They were the quintessential method of voting for two generations of Americans, from the 1920s through the 1980s. But, while gear and lever machines had come to symbolize election reform, they were complicated devices that required constant maintenance and could contribute to undercounting.
Whatever the voting method, the success of the democratic process depends on voter participation. Over the decades, organizations of all kinds have worked to inform voters and stimulate turnout on election day. This poster included key information to prepare voters and encourage participation in the 1960 presidential election.
Efforts to remind voters of upcoming elections and persuade them to go to the polls range from the modest -- such as a postcard or campaign button -- to the extreme. Before the 1960 election, Ford Motor Company transformed its enormous headquarters adjacent to a busy freeway into an illuminated billboard to help get out the vote.
Despite sweeping change in American elections during the first half of the 20th century, challenges remained. In the 1960s, continuing discriminatory practices that prevented African Americans from voting -- or even registering to vote -- sparked violent clashes. High-profile protests organized by voting rights activists ultimately led to new legislation that prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
The successes of voting rights activists in the 1960s encouraged newly-enfranchised voters to become more active in political elections and motivated further reform. Young people pressed for voting rights, and in 1971, when the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, eleven million more Americans became eligible to vote.
"Butterfly ballots," computerized punch card ballots that voters pierce with a "punch needle," sped up the tabulation process and allowed officials to announce election results sooner than ever before. This mobile voting booth designed for butterfly ballots includes panels that fold out for privacy. When not in use, it collapses to the size of a briefcase.
Though designed for efficiency, "butterfly ballots" are imperfect. If they are not fully punched, partially attached fragments of paper called "hanging chads" can invalidate the vote. During the 2000 presidential election, this infamous system forced a recount of spoiled ballots in several Florida counties.
Early 21st-century innovations, like new ways to vote by mail and voting machines with optical scanning technology, addressed continuing concerns about voting access and accuracy. But each change to the voting system introduced new challenges. Like voter participation, the need to constantly evaluate and improve the voting process remains crucial to the success of American democracy.