Pulp Magic

NOVEMBER 2, 2016

History of Voting with Paper

When you vote this Election Day, it’s good to remember that you’re taking part in a ritual of democracy with a rich history.

The ancient Greeks who not only invented democracy but also the mechanics of voting used to throw small metal tokens marked with their preferred candidate into a jar where they could be counted. The Venetians used small clay balls called pallotte instead. We’ve mixed the two together when we say we are “casting a ballot.”

In the United States, the methods of voting have evolved significantly but one thing has remained constant – Americans cast their votes on paper.  Paper ballots have been used in this country since before there was a country. The first paper ballots in the New World were used in 1629 to choose the pastor of Salem Church in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In the beginning of the republic, many towns voted on one large sheet of paper that voters signed indicating their preferred candidate. This advanced into an individual scrap of paper on which each voter wrote the name of a candidate. To make things easier, political candidates began to print ballots in newspapers that voters would tear out, sign, and place into a ballot box.

Political parties picked up this idea and pretty soon they began to print their own ballots. Surprisingly, these pre-printed ballots were so controversial that, in Connecticut at least, it took a constitutional amendment in 1844 to make the practice legal.

Paper Ballot_LG

By the mid-19th century the parties began to print long vertical ballots that looked like railway tickets with all their candidates’ names on them so voters could simply vote a “straight ticket.” If you didn’t want to vote for all the party’s candidates you would simply tear the ballot in half – split the ticket – and write in your candidate’s name. To thwart this practice, parties printed the names tightly without enough blank space between them to tear properly or write in another name. Another innovation was to print the candidates’ names in hard to read type with only the party name clearly legible at the top to encourage party line voting.

A big advance now seems obvious in retrospect – a single uniform ballot supplied at the voting booth with one party’s candidates on the left side and the others party’s on the right which kept the voter’s choice secret. The “Australian Ballot” as it was known was introduced in Massachusetts in 1888 and slowly spread nationwide. Some variation on this single ballot approach is in use to this day.

The balloting process seems to have advanced in a series of innovations to thwart tampering followed by innovations to circumvent the protections and so on. We’re now at the point that states that adopted electronic voting machines in recent years are now switching back to paper ballots.

So, this Election Day, take a moment to consider how much thought has gone into the actual mechanics of voting and how central a role paper has played.