Episode 95: How We Vote

The secret ballot... the decorum of the polling place... the sanctity of the voting booth... these are the trappings of Election Day in the U.S., and they feel as old as time when you pull that curtain closed to (silently) voice your vote. But we haven't always voted this way. In fact, there was a time when Election Day was characterized by violence, drunken revelry and beans in a box. Jill Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard University, and staff writer at the New Yorker. She joined us to shed some light on the (occasionally dark) history of voting in the U.S., and to explain why things got so quiet. 


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Civics 101

Episode 95: How We Vote


This transcript was created using machine transcription. There may be some discrepancies between the audio and transcription.



CPB Grant: [00:00:00] Civics 101 is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Opener: [00:00:04] Who is the current speaker of the house? Don't even know. Will they rule in the presidents' favor or will they send it to the Supreme Court? You can't refer to a senator directly by their name. Congressional redistricting. Separation of Powers. Executive Order. The national security council. Civics, Civics, Civics 101.


Virginia Prescott: [00:00:19] I'm Virginia Prescott. And this is Civics 101. The podcast refresher course on the basics of how our democracy works.


[00:00:29] On Election Day millions of Americans go to their polling places collect their ballots and step into a small quiet booth to make their voices heard today. What happens next. And how did we as a nation get to voting this way?


[00:00:46] I'm Evan and I'm a teacher at Cleveland High School in Seattle and my ninth grade students were wondering how does voting actually work. We're do those ballots go and who counts them? Thanks and go Eagles.


Virginia Prescott: [00:00:59] Shedding some light on the methods and madness of American voting as Jill Lepore She's professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Jill welcome to Civics 101.


Jill Lepore: [00:01:10] Thanks so much for having me.


Jill Lepore: [00:01:12] So shall we start with that one. Brass tacks, do we know what happens to people's votes how it gets counted?


Jill Lepore: [00:01:19] One of the things that's comes out of that question is are votes are secret and we think many Americans think that that has always been the case and the secret ballot is some kind of an ancient American idea and a founding American truth. And therefore there's a little bit of mystery and secrecy about the process like where does it go we don't even see it anymore because it's hidden. But actually the whole idea of a secret ballot is it's not him it doesn't come from the United States it comes from Australia and it's not an old idea. Relatively speaking. So that's one of the things I think about about the nature of that question itself it just reveals in some ways the strangeness of our voting.


Virginia Prescott: [00:01:57] OK so that's kind of hard to comprehend. I grew up in a family where my parents never talked about who they voted for. One of my colleagues here says she thought growing up that it was illegal to tell people who you voted for. How did we get here. Let's start with the early settlers before the revolution. How did they vote?


Jill Lepore: [00:02:16] So it was entirely understood that voting was a civic act. And like other civic acts needed to be done in public.


[00:02:24] And so in early towns, say, New England towns, to the best documented parts of early American history people would just -- it was called Viva Voce, by voice. So you would vote like you would vote maybe you know you've probably been at a department meeting or those ninth graders probably had a decision in their history classroom where they had to vote on something they just kind of raise your hand. Right. So you'd go to the town hall or there before there was a town hall. You go to the town common and let's say you were voting on you candidate for selectman and this guy Smith was running against this guy, Jones, and if you were for Jones you'd move to one side of the hall or the common and if you were for the other guy go to the other side. And you would just your head would be counted at the time.


[00:03:11] You know the word poll means head, the top your head is your poll.


Virginia Prescott: [00:03:14] Huh.


[00:03:15] So it was called counting the polls. It was just a head count, is who's counting the polls. So sometimes you'd shout it out if it was by acclamation. There are enough people can do yeas and nays right. Yeah. So everybody knew everybody else voted and that was that was necessary to the understanding of the act itself. Like it it was considered incredibly shameful to want to hide how you would vote.


Virginia Prescott: [00:03:38] It's just incomprehensible. So all right. This is early colonial days then the Constitution comes along. How did the Founders address voting rules regulations, prohibition?


Jill Lepore: [00:03:48] So they really didn't, the constitution it specifically makes no regulations regarding voting it's left to the states. And at the time the change really wasn't coming from a set of changing ideas about how we should vote. I think it's Maryland maybe is the first state to even begin to use paper ballots. So before that I mean the word ballot comes from the same root as the word bullet. It means a ball a little ball. So in some places where it was too hard to discount polls like just how people line up or call out by the 18th century a lot of places introduced little balls so you'd pick say a kernel of corn and you'd put them in a box so that was and people are talking about casting a ballot and that woman throwing your ball into the box.


Virginia Prescott: [00:04:33] OK we're four minutes in I've got all these new vocabulary.


Jill Lepore: [00:04:37] I think the etymology is actually great. So we kind from counting polls to casting ballots which are these tiny little balls and it's a little bit like you know we talk about drawing straws. No one even knows that comes from but it's like that. That's what casting a ballot is like tossing a ball into a bin. So then people recognize this population is getting bigger. This is kind of a hassle will do this by paper paper is getting a little bit cheaper and a little bit more easily available and so people would write down the candidates name and put that in the same thing in that box that used to hold all the balls. So what. Who gave them the ballots. So there weren't ballots it was just scraps of paper. And this introduced all kinds of problems. I'm sure you can imagine like even you think about those ninth graders if their teachers said OK we're going to next study the Constitution or are we going to skip ahead and do the reign of Andrew Jackson or something. And students had to scribble that on a piece of paper and hand it in half of them would be illegible.


[00:05:32] So there's problems with legibility of writing by hand. So again still none of this is legislated and all of it is public. There's no sense that you're hiding your vote. But people had the idea. By the 18 twenties of printing out a ballot because there were a lot more people it would go more quickly. And by the 1820s, there were parties. So people often forget and assume that the two party system or any party system at all has always been around. That's not the case at all the parties didn't develop so I'm sure you've covered in your podcast. You didn't develop until the 1790a and it was pretty controversial when it started but by 1820 there really are parties, there are stable parties. And the parties each have their own newspaper in every city and town. The newspapers are all partisan. So the parties get the idea, oh we can make sure that the voters vote for everyone that we want them to vote for by printing ballots and we'll just give them the ballot listing everybody who's in our party. That's what's called the party ticket. So that's when that came because it looks like it started to be called the party because it looks like a train ticket. So better first that was considered illegal for all kinds of reasons that was controversial. But for a long time in the 19th century people voted with these party tickets so you would before you went to go to now the place was called the polls.


[00:06:48] The word had changed from meaning the top of your head to the place where we could vote, before you went to the polls, you'd have to get a newspaper and you'd cut your ballot out of the newspaper.


Virginia Prescott: [00:07:03] You are going to a public place and you were putting your ticket in some kind of ballot publicly. I mean at this point was it clear to all of your neighbors who you were voting for?


Jill Lepore: [00:07:13] Yes. So now remember by the 1828, this is the age of the common man and Andrew Jackson almost all white men can vote for the first time anywhere in the world even poor men with no property don't pay taxes can't read or write. They can vote and there's a new thing. So election day which has always all this time from the founding of the colonies been a holiday and a day when people basically go to the town come in and get drunk. Election day is still a holiday. Everybody goes in big cities small towns. They drink all day and they cast their ballots by going up to a window usually in a building and dropping off their ballot. And the way that the parties work in this very kind of hurly burly very kind of physical muscular drunken working class outdoor voting environment is the newspapers get the idea. If they print the ballots on colored paper no one could hide how they're going to vote. And you could rough up somebody who came to cast a vote and if you didn't want them to cast their vote let's say I want to vote for the Democrat but my polling place is dominated by people from who are from the Whig party and they really rowdy and I'm really in the minority. But the Democratic newspaper prints my ticket on blue paper. So I have to make my way through this crowd of Whigs.


[00:08:32] We're going to have a lot of like party thugs there.


Virginia Prescott: [00:08:35] Clutching your blue paper in secret.


Virginia Prescott: [00:08:37] It's huge. They make them huge. They're like the size of a whole piece of tabloid newspaper clutching my newspaper and trying to get across this group of drunken guys to cast my ballot. So was there ever violence in these cases. There was violence. Every single election day. Not until 1896 is there to election day in the United States when someone is basically killed. So it's really vile. It's really public and there's a lot of corruption and so people who've been arguing for the franchise the extension of the suffrage to all white men start saying you know what maybe that was a bad idea because the poor are so poor that they'll sell their vote. So let's say I really need something to eat.


[00:09:15] So I just turn up at the polling place and you know you give me a dollar and I cast whatever party ticket you want me to cast for you. There's also very little preventing me to vote more than once. There's no registration of voters. So there's a lot of violence a lot of physical intimidation a lot of bribery and corruption and elections are really quite dangerous. On the other hand on the upside because this I know is probably sounded bad to people on the upside, everybody voted .


Virginia Prescott: [00:09:41] What, violence, beating people up, selling votes, fraud?


Jill Lepore: [00:09:43] But it was like a parade and there's bands and there's drinking it's a big celebration.


[00:09:48] It's like the Fourth of July. I mean it's a very exciting thing to election day. Everybody voted everybody who could vote.


[00:09:54] Voter turnout was just shockingly high. Like almost to 90 percent for most of these years during presidential election years people really do go.


Virginia Prescott: [00:10:03] OK so then comes the secret ballots. What were the arguments for and against a secret ballot?


Jill Lepore: [00:10:10] Proposals for the secret ballot start really in 1850. Before that there had been a couple of oh kind of clever schemes like Massachusetts had this idea what if what if at the polling place we gave everybody our envelopes reaches everybody with uniform envelopes so that people can seal their ballots up and cast them without anybody knowing what's on them. And they managed to get that through the legislature. And the idea is just simply that it'll reduce corruption if people can vote. But the next legislature the legislature changes hands and they repeal it and they say it's just cowardly. What does this all blow up is this this is just incredibly cowardly. Voting is an act of civic participation you do it in public you don't cower like a coward. So efforts to reform voting pretty much fail before the 1858 but by the 1950s there's an awful lot of corruption and there are people who are making considerable inroads arguing for the adoption of what is the time known as the Australian ballot because in Australia they have a similar problem they have widespread suffrage and a lot of corruption at the ballot box and a proposal is made it is passed by the legislature for a set of reforms that now seem completely natural to us because this is at least certainly how I vote the Australian ballot that's adopted in Australia in the 1950s allows for the following: the government shall print the names of candidates of all parties on the ballot so long as you meet minimum requirements to be listed on the ballot. The government will supply the belts.


[00:11:39] The government will receive receive the ballots then voting will be conducted not outdoors but indoors will be entirely domesticated and you will go into a polling place where under the terms of the last very narrow specifications about these little sort of cubbies with curtains drawn where you can vote in secret and where you. All you need to do is mark the of the candidate you want to vote for office by office. People often use party symbols. This is where things like the elephant and the donkey come in because of limited literacy because if you don't know the names of the candidates you can just vote by party visually and that everybody only gets one ballot and that your name will be kind of checked off. So this set of reforms allegedly works wonders and Australian people will begin promoting it in the United States.


[00:12:27] It doesn't really take off until after the Civil War and it's not first adopted in the United States and this is again state by state and even in many states city by city until 1882 it's not until 1896 that's that year when no one gets killed on election day that it has been adopted pretty much throughout the United States. And it does have one effect that it had aspired to have which is it reduces the influence of money in elections in the short term but it has a much darker implication as well.


Virginia Prescott: [00:12:56] What do you mean by that?


Virginia Prescott: [00:12:58] So the places where the Australian ballot or the secret ballot is most readily adopted is the state of the former Confederacy where under the reconstruction act black men can vote for the first time.


[00:13:13] And where former Confederates white Southerners don't want black men to vote. This measure this new set of requirements about voting that gives the state a huge amount of control over who votes is readily adopted and passed by Southern legislatures where it is used to completely disenfranchise black men.


Virginia Prescott: [00:13:34] Literacy tests in that kind of thing.


Virginia Prescott: [00:13:36] Yes it's a de facto literacy test. I mean unless you use party symbols which you can just decide to leave off the ballot. It's an inscrutable document.


Virginia Prescott: [00:13:44] I guess what I want to understand is like how the way we vote physically influences the way we vote. Kind of you know psychologically how we think about our votes?


Jill Lepore: [00:13:55] There are maybe three big changes from voice voting to paper voting right from paper voting to the secret ballot and from the secret ballot to mechanized or computer methods. Right?


Virginia Prescott: [00:14:10] Right.


Jill Lepore: [00:14:11] I would say of those the biggest jump is from open voting to secret voting right. I mean just in terms of the way that you are asking how do we understand voting the technology that we use to cast her ballot. Seems to be of quite secondary concern relative to that our voting is open or secret. So I just think that's the real kind of the great divide in American voting. And it also marks a significant divide in this way as well. 1896 is the last time this really high voter turnout. Because with the rise of the secret ballot people stopped bothering to go home.


Virginia Prescott: [00:14:48] There are so many things in the Constitution and in the way that the amendments are written in the bill of rights that make very clear what the founders were thinking of. Why do you think they left voting and the process of voting so vague?


Jill Lepore: [00:15:04] That's a really fascinating question. It really is a kind of local practice in local culture I think and I don't know if you have this Virginia but I actually I'm deeply affectionate of my polling place like I love the ritual I love everything about it.


[00:15:21] I'm so excited when it's election day the old curtains you red white and blue curtains of polyester and the kind of stale Blondie and bad coffee that I buy from the third graders from the hallway and it has its own thing in my neighborhood. I like seeing the same people that I'm going to see there and I would be sad if they put in touch screens because I like the little sort of reminds me of a 1970s mimeograph machine. In other words like I think people people do care deeply. It is a deeply important thing to do and we forget that all the time.


[00:15:56] But my sense is that it very much relies on local custom and local practice and that there was an appreciation for that. At the time there was no need for that to be federally legislated in anywhere federally mandated within within the Constitution because all kinds of problems I guess arguably that it wasn't. There are all kinds of things they fail to think about right. This why the problem of the reason we need the 12th Amendment by 1893 right that the separation of the president voting for the president voting for the vice president weren't separated which introduced all kinds of problems or all kinds of problems that it had by not kind of think through but they were making it up and they had a lot to make up. So I think it kind of high handed interference and the ordinary practice of voting at a time when there was an incredible lack of unanimity and uniformity of voting practices. People vote in all different kinds of ways from town to town. And I think still do.


[00:16:53] Jill Lepore, thank you so much for speaking with us.


Virginia Prescott: [00:16:56] Thank you.


[00:16:59] Jill Lepore is professor of American history at Harvard University and staff writer for The New Yorker. If you want to have your vote counted by us here at Civics 101, submit your question about how democracy works to Civics101@nhpr.org.





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