Public Voting: Before the Secret Ballot

For most of America’s history, elections were noisy, well-attended public events. There was no secrecy and no private voting booths with curtains and stillness; voting was conducted in the open before interested spectators. Voters stood in line or came forward from the crowd to vote, often times climbing steps to a platform where election officials sat to do so. Whether they emerged from the Election Day scrum or stood in a line, always they voted one by one and were always observed.  

In some states, those that are the focus of this website, voters (all men in those days) called out the names of the candidates they wanted for the offices being contested. Election clerks would enter their choices in the official poll book. State election law required votes to be given in this manner; it was called voting viva voce – by voice. About sixteen percent of national presidential votes at the middle of the 19th century were made this way. Each of those votes was heard.

In most states the voters came to the polling place and selected one party’s “ticket” which listed all of its official candidates and then voted by depositing that ticket. The tickets, often colorful and decorated with distinctive images, were handed at booths, one per party, out by party workers. Standing in a line or before the crowd, the voter deposited a highly visible ticket in a box or transparent jar or handed it in to an election clerk. Almost every one of those votes was seen.

In both systems secrecy was made deliberately difficult if not impossible and in both systems the voters voted one by one, and in both systems onlookers could hear or see for themselves the party and candidates their fellow citizens were supporting.

The sections to the left explain these two systems and explore the results of the elections conducted under these rules in Alexandria and Newport.

By Voice explains the oral voting systems required by Virginia and Kentucky state law and used in the Alexandria, Virginia elections of May 26, 1859 and the Newport, Kentucky elections of March 2, 1874. Bystanders heard each of the voters call out his vote for each office.

By Ticket explains the ticket system which prevailed in many states until the 1890s, showing how parties constructed tickets to reveal how individuals voted, the increasing array of problems parties faced with the ticket system, and the consequent growth in state regulation of party tickets.

Summary, Voting allows the exploration of the strength of party loyalty (voting for one party for all office vs splitting offices between parties) among a wide variety of occupational, wealth, ethnic, and religious groups in the two cities.

Summary, Turnout allows the exploration of the likely level of participation (turnout) for a wide variety of occupational, wealth, ethnic, and religious groups in the two cities.