I have Inclos'd another Small Accot that I have Paid Colo. Hite on the Accot of the Ellextion I Don’t know Weather I have Acted Prudent or not but is Paid of all Accots that was Contracted at that time which Will not amount to more than Forty Pounds...
– Letter from Charles Smith to George Washington, Fort Loudoun, 5 August, 1758
The itemised bill enclosed with this letter details the amount of the liquor bill for George Washington's (successful) bid for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. In the course of electioneering, Washington's representatives dispensed: 46¾ gallons of beer, 40 gallons, 1 hogshead, 1 barrel, and 10 bowls of rum punch, nearly 35 gallons of wine, 2 gallons of cider, and 3½ pints of brandy.
From this, we learn two things:
- George Washington and his contemporaries couldn't spell for toffee.
- Election practices were a bit dodgy in colonial times.
We tend to take it for granted that elections in the past worked like our modern elections, with secret balloting and careful, sober vote-casting. This is far from the case. A brief overview of election procedures in the last 200-odd years of United States history is in order.
Election Day Festivities
Voters in colonial Virginia, as with other colonies, were adult (over 21), male, white, and landowners. In the early republic, these rules generally held. Sometimes, property requirements specified a certain value to the property owned, and residency requirements varied in length. Voters had to show up – no absentee balloting allowed. All votes were viva voce, which means the voter had to identify himself and say out loud who he was voting for.
The atmosphere at colonial and early-republic elections was festive: there were no rules against currying favour with your voters by offering really good drinks. Early elections put the 'party' in politics. Political organisations rented taverns for the day. There was even a special 'election cake', a loaf containing raisins, figs and spices. There were picnics. Sometimes, there were fistfights. A good time was usually had by all. No wonder the voter turnout was 85%.
In the early 19th Century, paper ballots began to be used. These weren't the kind of ballots used in more modern times. At first, voters wrote the names of their choices on a slip of paper, or used printed forms supplied in the local newspapers. By mid-century, political parties began distributing pre-printed cards with their party's candidates listed. These 'tickets' could be turned in as voting slips. Today, voting for all the candidates in a single party is still called 'voting a straight ticket'.
Many complaints resulted from this pre-printed party ticket system. Voter fraud was frequently alleged, probably with good reason, as the tickets made it easy to 'stuff the ballot box'. In 1888, New York and Massachusetts put an end to this practice by printing out official ballots with all the candidates listed. They didn't think this up on their own. It's called the 'Australian ballot system'. The Australians gave the US another clever idea: making the ballots secret. It's a lot easier to vote for the candidate of your choice if your neighbours, the pastor, and your employer can't tell who you voted for.
Machine Politics (Literally)
US voters who cast their ballots before 1980 may remember the lever-operated voting machine. This machine, first patented in 1889 by Rochester, New York safemaker Jacob H Myers as the 'Automatic Booth', was first used in 1892. It had more moving parts than an early automobile. Some variation on Myer's machine1 was widely used in the US between 1910 and 1980. The voting machine required no electricity: it was totally mechanical. It allowed the voter to choose candidates individually, or to vote 'straight party'. The entire slate was chosen before the voter pulled the master lever to register all the choices. The vote wasn't counted until the voter pulled the final lever – the one that opened the privacy curtain to the voting booth.
In the 1960s, some voting districts started using punch cards for voting. After all, weren't punch cards the wave of the future? Look at computers, all using punch cards... Punching holes did, indeed, allow computers to count the votes. Of course, you then had the argument about 'hanging chads'. A 'chad' is that pesky square or circle of paper that falls out when you punch the hole – or fails to fall out, hangs on, and causes voter recounts. Hanging chads became a major problem in the 2000 presidential election, as did 'dimpled chads' and, heaven help us, 'pregnant chads2.'
After the headaches caused by the 2000 election, election commissions around the US began working on ways to make voting easier and safer by upgrading their technology. Unfortunately, the choice of most states was the touch-screen. After concerns about interference in the 2016 elections by (possible, alleged) foreign hackers, many states opted to throw out the expensive but vulnerable technology. Back to paper ballots.
A competing technology to computer voting is the scannable paper ballot. This form of ballot is similar to the answer sheets widely used in educational testing. The little ovals can be filled in with #2 pencil3 and scanned by machine. It's easy to count mail-in votes this way. The method is quick, safe, and pretty nearly unhackable. Best of all, there are no chads to dimple, hang, or get pregnant.