How America Voted: By Voice

The transparency of Election Day – being able to see or hear the choices of each voter – helped make past politics the mass spectacle that it was. And the most transparent way of voting was viva voce: calling out in public the name of the candidate you wanted for each office.
If the secret ballot was an Australian import that came to the US across the Pacific, viva voce arrived from the other direction – across the Atlantic from Britain and Europe (in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and the German provinces) where oral voting had long been electoral law. In North America, it was the law across Canada and in six of the original American colonies, ranging from New York to Georgia. Westward settlement took viva voce to Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Oregon.
Viva voce voting was the defining feature of the political worlds of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Lincoln, all of whom came to political leadership in states that voted by voice. Its high point coincided with the great expansion of the suffrage: the era still sometimes referred to as “the golden age” of American political participation. Oral voting gradually waned, but even in the presidential election of 1860 nearly ten percent of the vote was cast by voice. In the 1830s five of the 26 states voted viva voce (Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and Illinois); in the 1850s five of the 33 states did so with Oregon replacing Illinois and Texas giving up its brief experiment with oral voting; in the 1870s only Kentucky and Oregon continued to vote viva voce. In 1891 Kentucky became the last state in the Union to practice oral voting and the only American state to move directly from voting by voice to an Australian invention: the state-produced secret ballot.
The objection to viva voce, of course, was that it invited intimidation and coercion, of employees by employers, of the weak by the powerful, and of individuals by groups. Yet it remains the case, perhaps ironically, that turnout appears to have been so high when public voting prevailed.
Indeed the notion that open voting inevitably produced intimidated voters may be countered by an extreme case of power differentials: the electoral behavior of former slaves in Kentucky. As everywhere the men who had been enslaved were enfranchised by the Fifteenth amendment but Kentucky, because it was both a Union state and a slave state, was exempt from the Reconstruction Acts that made abolition of viva voce voting a condition of readmission to the Union. Instead Kentucky persevered with its ante-bellum laws and “by voice” voting persisted another quarter of a century.  
Thus in Kentucky, and only in Kentucky, is there is an official record – the poll books – which tells us how former slaves used the suffrage in the tumultuous Reconstruction years. What we see are many newly enfranchised black men voting solidly Republican, sometimes calling out their vote just before or after their former masters, almost all of whom had become part of the Southern white Democratic Party. Eventually the black vote in Kentucky would be largely extinguished through laws designed for that purpose, but for many years the poll books show us black men who, especially in strong black communities, also persevered in exercising the power of the vote against what must have been fearsome odds.
Viva voce voting finally disappeared from the American political landscape by 1896, leaving in many places the only official records – the poll books – recording the electoral behavior of individuals in America’s long history of public voting. Poll books are the documents compiled by election clerks on the day of the election; they preserve the vote of every participant for every office as that voter came before the officials. They are the written record of what spectators heard.
Election clerks created these records, sitting at tables on the raised platforms on to which voters ascended, one by one, to voice their vote. They inscribed on the left side of each page of their book of the poll, the name of the voter as he came before them and then indicated by number or tick across the page his choice of candidates for each of the many offices being filled at that election [link to image of Alexandria poll book]. Electoral law in the viva voce states required this mode of election for all offices, from president, Congress (until 1867), and state legislature, to the most prosaic city or county office. Post-election, the poll books became public documents and the evidentiary base for disputed elections. Those that survive are remarkable political documents: each an historical reenactment of a long-past political contest presenting the voting decisions of every citizen and the order in which those declarations were made.
Poll books are our own treasure trove of political information, data that even the most skilled of today’s political operatives cannot obtain.