In Practice How Different Were Ticket and Viva Voce Elections?

There is only fragmentary evidence of how elections were conducted in America’s past. There are two reasons for this.
First, the very ordinary is often the least recorded: few people enquire, let alone document in detail, how ordinary things happen, whether it is how checks are cashed or how elections are conducted.
Second, the administration of American elections has always been highly localized. As each modern election demonstrates, often in entertaining ways, US elections are run by local officials interpreting federal and state laws according to local practices and traditions. This means a great deal of variation in the conduct of election from place to place, even more so in the past than in our present. Even if we do know how elections are supposed to be run from a state’s law books and are lucky enough to have a description of the mechanisms of voting in one election in that state, we cannot be sure of the procedures in any other jurisdiction in that state. This is particularly true in satisfying residence and citizenship requirements for voting.
What we do know is that elections were complex and much more so in the United States than in the parliamentary systems where oral voting originated. Along with an expanded suffrage, came arguments that large numbers of offices should be elected, rather than appointed, especially at the state and local level. In parliamentary systems, elections seldom involve more than a single office, which usually is filled only at the end of a parliamentary term: once every three, four or five years. In a federal United States, the list of offices being filled in a single election was typically around a dozen but could run to 30 or more.
The simple idea of oral voting in which the voter enunciated only the name of a single parliamentary candidate translated to a multi-candidate, multi-office context meant oral voting became much more complex to administer in the United States. How could an American voter remember and recite the names of the dozen or more candidates for whom he wished to vote?
The answer was that parties in American viva voce states produced lists of candidates, just as they did in the ticket states. We can see this in the only representation we have of a viva voce election: George Caleb Bingham’s painting, The County Election [see the painting]. We see the candidate offering a slip of paper with names written on it to a voter who is ascending the steps to the platform where the election officials are arrayed. The intention was that the voter would read those names aloud, or that an election official, in recording the voter’s choices, would do so.
Does this mean that the ticket based elections and viva voce elections were the same, given that they both had tickets? No, the key difference remained, but there was local confusion and local variation.
In Alexandria, the local paper, The Alexandria Gazette, reminded voters on the eve of the 1859 election: “Persons voting in this State, must not only hand in their tickets, but the persons for whom they vote must be proclaimed audibly.” Indeed Section 4 of the Virginia constitution which required that, “In all elections, votes shall be given openly and viva voce, and not by ballot.” Yet there were instances in which, “printed tickets, with the names of the persons designed by the party to be voted for, are handed to the conductor [of the election], and the votes recorded for the persons named on such tickets.” There were probably instances when election clerks simply transcribed into the poll book the party-prepared list the voter presented. This violated the whole principle of viva voce elections and diminished the distinction between oral voting and party ticket voting. Even the Gazette became confused, advising voters to “Deposite [sic] your votes, and retire immediately from the polls, so as to allow easy access to all” (link to the Alexandria Gazette, May 21, 23, 26, 1859.)
In fact, however, a bright line has always separated ticket and oral voting. Regardless of local variations in the conduct of viva voce elections, the vital distinction between ticket and oral voting remains the poll book. Whether the voter gave voice to his choices, whether an election official read out the names on a voter’s party ticket, or whether any vote was voiced at all, the poll books preserved the contents of each vote next to the name of each voter and they remain the defining feature of viva voce elections [link to pages of an Alexandria poll book to follow].
In a ticket system, the careful poll-watcher could record the color of the ticket of voters as they came forward (assuming he knew them by sight or caught their names if they were read aloud) but errors and incompleteness were inevitable. Moreover, the records created by the poll-watchers were private party records, which would be available only to those who would sue them to further the party’s electoral prospects.
The poll books from the viva voce states remain the perfect record of past elections: official, comprehensive documents preserving the full content of every voter’s choices for all the offices being filled. They are the defining feature of viva voce election. There is nothing else like them in all of American political history. They were deposited in their thousands in the city clerk’s or county clerk’s office for anyone to examine.  Every vote was on file. And luckily, some of those files have survived.
Today, the world captured by the poll books, and only by the poll books, has disappeared; every aspect of it inverted by the secret ballot, the “Australian ballot” which privatized, individualized, and sanitized American elections. What was communal and collective and a partnership (however uneasy) between political parties and the state, moved to being the sole domain of the state.
American election days changed forever in what was an unnoticed and unheralded watershed in American political history. Today as more and more states experiment with “vote-by-mail” elections, even the notion of an “Election Day” is fast disappearing. No doubt there are gains in this slide to greater and greater individualism and privacy, but there are uncounted and, largely, comprehended losses too – losses all the more significant if the goal of democratic politics is to achieve an engaged citizenry acting in the best interests of its community.