Voting Wasn't Always a Sober Exercise
Election Day is a week away, but Americans already are going to the polls. Data from Maryland shows early turnout has doubled from the 2014 midterm elections. The number of early voters in Dallas County, Texas is near its 2016 level -- a notable data point since millions more voters generally go to the polls in presidential election years than midterm cycles.
Nearly three-quarters of the U.S. states now allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day, which reminds us that voting has changed radically over our two-and-a-half American centuries.
In 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed but well before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, state legislatures determined which individuals could vote. Most bodies allowed only white men over the age of 21 to cast ballots. These rules were in effect for most of the country’s first century. (The Constitution kept state legislatures in charge of voting laws.) When Wisconsin entered the union in 1848, it set out fairly liberal voting standards. The state allowed immigrants to vote if they had lived in the state for at least a year and planned to become U.S. citizens.
It wasn’t until the 14th Amendment was ratified in July of 1868 that all men 21 years old or older and born or naturalized in the United States were granted the right to vote. (And then, of course, some states set high barriers to voting that kept non-whites from exercising their right.)
Most American women had to wait until the 19th Amendment was ratified in August of 1920 to cast ballots in federal elections. But more than a half century earlier, Wyoming became the first state or territory to allow women to vote in 1869. Utah allowed women to vote the next year. Progressive hotbed New York, long the political “yang” to the Midwest’s “yin,” didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1917.
On women’s suffrage, though, the United States actually was ahead of Europe. The United Kingdom and Ireland didn’t allow women to vote until 1928. In France, women had to wait until 1944. And, unbelievably, the female citizens of Lichtenstein only received a legal right to vote in 1984.
The way we vote in the United States also has changed. Pre-American Revolution, votes for colonial posts were cast at “local carnivals.” As Time described it, “[P]eople—who may or may not have been drunk at the time … would call out their votes to be counted.” As you might expect, voting tallies using this method of vote counting were less than unassailable.
Public voting was common in the United States until the early to mid-1800s, but even when paper ballots came into existence, the process was much different than what we see today – or, rather, what we saw until paper ballots largely were supplanted by digital screens.
Printed ballots became popular in America as political parties rose to prominence. Time explained, the parties “would distribute multi-page ballots with the names of the officials running for the various offices that were up for election” and then “voters would take the ballot from the party they wanted they wanted and drop it in the ballot box to be counted.”
Even before Amazon, Americans appreciated convenience.
Secret ballots didn’t become prevalent until the late 19th century. Gear and lever machines were introduced at this time and patented by inventor Alfred J. Gillespie in the late 1890s. By 1920, these machines were the official voting method in at least 17 states. By 1960, more than half of the estimated 65 million ballots were cast in the presidential election were submitted by gear and lever.
That election probably was the apex of the machines. By the mid-1960s, Americans were fascinated by a new technology: the punch card ballot. According to the National Museum of American History, the Votomatic Vote Recorder, produced by IBM and featuring a stylus and a paginated ballot keyed to an underlying punch card, was used in Georgia, Oregon, and California.
If you’re a politico, one phrase likely jumped to mind as soon as you pictured voting punch cards: hanging chads. Readers probably remember the moment and where punch cards lost their luster: Nov. 7, 2000 in Florida. Hanging chads, eaten chads – and the hours and hours of riveting cable news watching the legal battle over what constituted a punched chad versus a hanging chad -- and the Supreme Court ushered in the era of electronic touch screen voting. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act, which provided funding to states to replace punch card voting systems, and may have inadvertently led to fears about election hacking in a digital voting environment.
Still, not all states have made the transition. According to Ballotpedia, four types of voting equipment are still in use in the United States: Optical Scan Paper Ballot Systems; Direct Recording Electronic Systems; Ballot Marking Devices and Systems; and punch cards.
In some states, though, residents vote entirely by mail. Oregon instituted mail ballot voting in the 2000 presidential election. Eighty percent of registered voters participated. Washington state and Colorado followed. In 19 other states, voting by mail occurs in some elections. Perhaps with a glass of wine in hand to pay homage to our ancestors’ carnival voting roots?
Regardless of how you vote on Nov. 6, cast your ballot. Just, please, try to do it sober.