Voting in the Early 1800s

Depiction of Voting in the Early 1800s.

In the early 1800s, an American polling place “displayed many of the worst features of all-male society: rowdy behavior, heavy drinking, coarse language, and occasional violence.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 491.

Then, typically, two to three weekdays would be deemed holidays so that eligible men could come to vote at their local polling place. See id. at 491-92. Election days varied state by state, and there were separate elections held for local, state, and federal offices, leaving most communities to vote in two elections per year. Id. at 492.

Voting “was sometimes oral and seldom secret.” Id. With the advent of political parties came more involvement by the political parties. Rival parties printed each other’s ballots, with distinctive colors “to make it easy for poll-watchers to tell which one a voter placed in the ballot box.” Id.

Further, the ballots only listed the candidates of the party that printed it, so a man would have to “scratch his ticket,” or cross out a name and write in the candidate he wanted to vote for instead. See id.

These practices, combined with the lack of secrecy, created a uniformity in communities in who men would vote for each election. This was especially true in more rural communities, where news traveled fast and most people knew each other. See id.

It would not be until the late 1800s until “Australian” ballots were used, which were ballots “printed at government expense and listing all candidates.” Id. citing Richard Bensel, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Eng., 2004), ix-xiii, 14-25; David Grimsted, American Mobbing (New York, 1998), 181-89.

While voting was a widespread activity and formed a part of most Americans’ lives, it was fraught with systemic problems that would preclude it from achieving its potential. As modern Americans know, secrecy in voting is crucial for avoiding pressure in communities spreading to cause a false uniformity of votes for candidates. While voting is an inherently contentious activity, in the early 1800s, it is clear that the system made it more chaotic, as polling places appeared to be as much a rough saloon as a station for democracy.

Regardless, voting was becoming an engrained activity in Americans’ lives, even if only white men could vote at this time. As the flaws would be corrected and the blemishes polished away over the following decades, voting would become a more dignified activity, as it remains to this day and as it should be for future generations.

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