October 30, 2008

Gird Your Loins and Cast a Ballot

I just finished voting. (Cue applause.) With my “secret ballot” duly sealed, I just need to mail it or do a drive-by at a ballot drop. Oregon has no other options; it’s strictly “vote-by-mail,” something that is intended to generate greater voter participation.

One thing I don’t have to worry about is running a gauntlet of rowdy thugs demanding to see my ballot. That IS, however, the time-honored American way. Writing in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore describes the case of Baltimore voter George Kyle, who tried to vote for his state’s congressman in 1859:
"As he neared the polls…a ruffian tried to snatch his ballots. Kyle... heard a cry: his brother, just behind him, had been struck. Next, someone clobbered Kyle... “I felt a pistol put to my head,” he said. Grazed by a bullet, he fell….Someone else fired a shot, hitting Kyle in the arm. [A man] threw a brick, knocking him off his feet. George Kyle picked himself up and ran. He never did cast his vote. Nor did his brother, who died of his wounds."
Kyle’s candidate not only lost the election, he also lost his appeal of the election. The House of Representatives found that any “man of ordinary courage” could have made his way to the polls that day.

From the founding of the U.S. until the 20th century, elections would not be invalidated unless “there was such a display of force [by opposition party members at the polling place] as ought to have intimidated men of ordinary firmness.” The Baltimore incident described above was no isolated incident; nearly 90 prospective voters were killed in the mid-1800s when they tried to vote on Election Day.

Also interesting, George Kyle was carrying his ballot with him to the polling place. The notion of a “secret ballot” was unknown and many states didn’t allow voting on paper. (Heck, Kentucky stuck to voting “by voice” until 1891!)

If you did bring your own ballot, you might have to fill it out right there at the polling place, which had no isolation booth. You had to supply the paper and remember every candidate for every office. Spelled a name wrong? Your vote was invalid.

In 1859, there wasn’t a single locale in the U.S. that provided ballots for its voters. This led political parties to print their own “party tickets” for voters to return. To advertise the party, these ballots came to be printed on colossal, bright sheets of paper that couldn’t be easily concealed as a person went to the polling place.

The state of Maine wised up to this and in 1831, protected voters by requiring uniform ballots. (Of course, the state didn’t actually PROVIDE the ballots.) This was not an example other states followed; secret ballots were suspicious; why would an honest American hide his political opinion?

But by following the example set by advanced civilizations like Australia and Maine, by 1896, government-printed ballots were used in 39 states. By the way, voter turnout during the 1800s averaged about 80% nationally. Though more types of people can vote safely today, we’re lucky to get 50% of people to the polls.

Cynics say that after the 2000 election debacle, people feel disenfranchised. Puh-leeze. Dismal voter turnouts predated 2000. It used to take bravery to vote in the U.S. Now that it’s safe and easy, one only has to care.

Both historic images above are from the Library of Congress; both are taken from Harper's Weekly. The first is from 1857, and the second (titled "The First Vote") is from a decade later.

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