Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On the Way to the Paper Ballot

Jill LePore's history of American voting (which also manages to be a history of British and Australian voting) is amazing:

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, eighty-nine Americans were killed at the polls during Election Day riots... The American adoption of the “Australian ballot”—and the radical idea that governments should provide ballots—was hard fought. It lies, if long forgotten, behind every argument about how we ought to vote now, from the 2002 Help America Vote Act’s promotion of paperless voting to the more recent backlash, favoring a paper trail. And it is also, like every other American election reform, a patch upon a patch...

The states, left to their own devices, adopted electoral methods best described as higgledy-piggledy, except that everyone agreed that Election Day ought to be a public holiday, involving plenty of stumping, debating, and parading. Some of the original state constitutions make mention of voting by ballot; some don’t... Early paper voting was, to say the least, a hassle. You had to bring your own ballot, a scrap of paper. You had to (a) remember and (b) know how to spell the name of every candidate and office. If “John Jones” was standing for election, and you wrote “Jon Jones,” your vote could be thrown out. (If you doubt how difficult this is, try it. I disenfranchise myself at “Comptroller.”) Shrewd partisans began bringing prewritten ballots to the polls, and handing them out with a coin or two. Doling out cash—the money came to be called “soap”—wasn’t illegal; it was getting out the vote...

A government-printed ballot that voters had, even minimally, to read made it much harder for immigrants, former slaves, and the uneducated poor to vote. Some precincts formally imposed and selectively administered literacy tests; others resorted to ranker chicanery. (In 1894, one Virginian congressional district printed its ballots in Gothic letters.) In the South, where black men had been granted suffrage in 1870, by the Fifteenth Amendment, it was fear of the black Republican majority that led many former Confederate states to adopt the reform in the first place. As a Democratic campaign song heard in Arkansas in 1892 put it:

The Australian ballot works like a charm,
It makes them think and scratch,
And when a Negro gets a ballot
He has certainly got his match.

The year after Arkansas passed its Australian-ballot law, the percentage of black men who managed to vote dropped from seventy-one to thirty-eight. By 1896, Americans in thirty-nine out of forty-five states cast secret, government-printed ballots. The turnout, nationwide? Eighty per cent, which was about what it had been since the eighteen-thirties. It has been falling, more or less steadily, ever since.
Reading, writing, paper, print, nineteenth-century hurlyburly. I'm in love. Can't believe I missed this in October.

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