Secrecy in Voting in American History: No Secrets There

For most of America’s history, from colonial days to the 1890s, keeping the content of your vote secret was almost impossible. There was no expectation that the vote should be secret and little understanding of how this could be accomplished even if it were a good idea. Many people – and not just political operatives – thought secrecy was not a good idea. In those days there was no model for structuring elections so they could be private individual matters, conducted quietly inside public buildings, with votes cast while hidden red, white, and blue striped curtains. That is not the way US elections were conducted. The alternative – today’s secret ballot – with which we are now so familiar had yet to be invented, or, as it turned out, imported into American politics.  
All elections for most of America’s history were organized to be non-secret. They were public events with individual voting occurring in plain sight of the crowds that election days once attracted. They were the culmination of weeks of excited electioneering. In large cities, they were public spectacles, with torchlight parades and the large scale public “illuminations,” so popular in the Victorian era [ see article ]. In rural places, election days often coincided with markets and sale days. In both contexts, crowds of voters and non-voters, the eligible and the ineligible, young and old, men and (some) women gathered at pubic polling places and watched as the voters, one by one, stepped out from the crowd to vote [link to Krimmell painting and permission].  
And as those men (for in almost all places only men could vote before 1918) stepped forward, it was almost always the case that the contents of their votes, their individual political choices, were identified by sight or sound and known to every person in the throng that assembled before the voting place. Here was a public festival during which you could learn a good deal about your friends and neighbors, your boss, or your employee. Seeing or hearing the individual votes as they were given revealed the tide of partisan battle. Political operatives could figure out what might yet be done to alter that outcome in the remainder of the day.      
To be sure, there were efforts in some places at some times (California in the 1870s and Massachusetts in the 1850s being the prime examples) to develop a more private manner of voting. But discovering what secrecy meant and how it could be institutionalized remained, even in reform-minded places, a great puzzle. The “secret-ballot,” a.k.a the “Australian ballot,” was an import (arriving only in the 1890s) from Australia via Britain [link to Boston ballot]. It transformed America’s Election Day by privatizing, but also bureaucratizing, sanitizing, and individualizing what had once been a dramatic public event. From that moment on:  
·       Elections would be indoors, run by government officials in a public building
·       Instead of competing party tickets, there would be a single state-produced ballot
·       The ballot would contain the names of all candidates (with room for write-ins)
·       The voter would mark the ballot in a private booth and deposit it with no identifying marks.
But until that happened – in the 1890s – all American elections were conducted in one of two ways: by voice or by ticket. These methods of conducting elections were specifically designed NOT to be private, but unapologetically to reveal, especially to party operatives, each voter’s political choices. The party wanted the voter to know which ticket he was supporting, and the party wanted to know that too. The public dimension of voting was important to some political thinkers and many political operatives, alarming to a few reformers, and accepted by the many as the way elections had always been conducted. 
By the middle of the nineteenth century most states (the US Constitution makes the conduct of all elections, even congressional and presidential elections, a state power) had opted for voting by a ballot rather than by voice. The ‘ballot” became the party-issued printed ticket listing that party’s designated slate of candidates for all offices being contested. Voting in this manner meant depositing, in public, the party ticket into a ballot box. That ticket, as we will see in the essay “How the Other Half (plus) Voted: The Party Ticket States” [link to this essay], was very distinctively marked and colored and voters were identified by the “the color of their ticket.”  
The other way of voting, still employed by seven states in the mid-nineteenth century, was by voice – viva voce. Voting in a viva voce state required you to go to the polling place and read out, or recite if you couldn’t read, the names of the candidates you wished to support.  
Both modes of voting produced the same result: all individual votes were knowable in that they could either be seen (party-tickets) or be heard (viva voce). This was the common theme of all elections in America’s political history until the threshold of the twentieth century. And it made sense: in those times political choices were understood to be communal, not private, matters. Voting to advance private individual interests calls for secrecy – but public voting made perfect sense when politics was understood to be about group or communal interests.