The political information is the heart of this project. We explore, with a level of detail never before possible, how ordinary Americans voted. For most of American history elections were held outside, in public spaces. Crowds of spectators, voters and non-voters, gathered to watch the excitement. Elections were exciting in that era because the crowd saw each voter come forward and make the choice of candidates for all offices, from president of the United States to members of the local school board. Even more interesting was the fact that the crowd – and the candidates too if they were present -- could see or hear how each individual voted. We now wrap in deep secrecy what for most of American history proclaimed openly. The age of public voting and knowable votes stretched from colonial times to the 1890s. By watching and listening, and counting, those in the crowd could tell who was winning and losing. The excitement, the parade of individuals stepping up to vote, turned election days into public festivals for voters, for candidates, and for the people of America.
There were only two ways to vote in the long age of public voting: by ticket, and by voice. About half of the colonies employed voice voting – called ‘viva voce’ – and many of the nation’s founding fathers came of political age voting viva voce, including Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Tyler, and Lincoln. Both Virginia and Lincoln’s Illinois required votes to be given by voice. Sixteen percent of the vote in the 1860 presidential election was cast viva voce.
This website contains the votes of several thousand people in two cities, Alexandria in Virginia and Newport in Kentucky (also a state that voted viva voce). We know how they voted because local election officials were required by law to write out in longhand in booklets – poll books – the name of each voter as he came forward and the candidates for whom he voted. (He, because only men could vote, and until the Civil War, only white men.) These poll books were legally mandated to provide a written record of a by voice election: they are the official record of the election. They were public records then and now. They tell us the spoken declaration of every voter and, because they preserve the order of voting, how voters grouped together at the polling place. This cache of individual political information is a telling measure of the absence of secrecy in past elections.
The system of ticket voting became more popular than oral voting, but its popularity was not due to an extra element of secrecy. Ticket votes were also public votes. States that did not require oral voting in the nineteenth century required voters to use “tickets” issued by political parties – lists, usually measuring about 3 inches by 5 inches, of the party’s candidates for all offices. Often these tickets were brightly colored and intricately designed to be highly visible. They were handed out from party-operated booths near the polling place. Voters carried their tickets (some wore them in their hatbands, in a flagrant display of their political allegiances) to the election officials who called out his name before the voter deposited his ticket, often into a glass jar, again in public view.
Both ticket and viva voce elections were conducted outdoors before crowds of voters and non-voters. In both forms of election the voter was visible to the crowd and his vote was either heard (in a vive voce election) or seen (in a ticket election).
Poll watchers at ticket elections sometimes wrote down the names of individual voters and their ticket, but these were haphazard and uncertain records. In a viva voce election, on the other hand, the poll
books are notable as official documents listing every voter and their choices: these formal records of all elections conducted by voice are remarkable political documents.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the mid-nineteenth century is often viewed as the high point of American political engagement. At that time Elections were noisy, boisterous public events. In rural areas they were often held in conjunction with fairs and sales. But in cities too, Election Day was a major happening.
The Unlocking the Social Logic of Past Politics Project
This project -- 'Unlocking the Social Logic of Past Politics' – is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in a grant to Professor Don DeBats. It is the first-ever study of cities using comprehensive individual-level political information. The poll book information is connected with other public records of those same individuals, including the US census, local tax lists, and local residential information. Church records are added, as well as membership information in clubs and societies.
The website presents this information for the entire population of Alexandria in 1860 and for Newport in 1870, when each small city had about 15,000 residents and shows where those people lived at that time. The website makes available to visitors up to 50 pieces of information on each of those residents, including who among them voted and how they voted. But the social structure of these two very different towns can be explored, too. Alexandria was a slave town and a commercial city selling wheat, corn, coal, and black lives while Newport was a town of European immigrants – Irish and German economic refugees – working in Newport’s heavy industries manufacturing steel and iron.
The website invites visitors to explore not just voting, but also the social structure of these two cities and intersection between their social and political worlds. Play with the data: it is quite unique and free of charge.
In more academic terms, this project brings new evidence to a new perspective emerging in contemporary political science emphasizing "the social logic of politics" and the importance of context in shaping individual electoral decisions. In these ways, this project explores the socially contingent nature of our past political world.