It might seem odd, but until 1891, there was no such thing as a secret ballot in Illinois elections. Instead, voters went to the polls and cast their ballots verbally for their selected candidates.
But in the 1890s, the progressive movement was growing fast. Farmers were organizing cooperative associations that were vying with the established political parties, unions were organizing, and a variety of social movements were afoot. The secret ballot, as developed in Australia, was seen as a vital part of reforming the political process by allowing voters to keep their choices from the prying eyes of political and business bosses.
Newspapers began instructing their readers in the new process a couple months before the election.
Here in Kendall County, the Kendall County Record gave voters a detailed set of instructions on Oct. 7, 1891 on how to go about casting their ballots the new way. The Record’s Oswego correspondent explained on Oct. 21:
The Australian system, adopted by Illinois and several other states, prevents the buyer of votes to see the delivery of them, hence that kind of practice will be much reduced where the system is in vogue, and recourse will be had to something else; colonization probably will get a stimulus.
When it came to actually casting their ballots that year, there was more than a little curiousity among voters, not to mention quite a bit of enthusiasm. Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank wrote on Nov. 11 that some of the participants were more enthusiastic than others:
In a partisan sense, the working of the Australian system here commenced abominably when for the first time in 35 years or more when the Democrats came out ahead in an election. John Pitt had the honor of casting the first vote under the new system; he is a very enthusiastic, quick and nimble man; when starting for the booths, someone said, “Do you know how to fix the ticket, John?” “Yis,” said he; on entering, instead of lifting up the curtain or drawing it to one side, he dove right down under it, coming up on the inside under the shelf with which his head came in collision, making the sheet-iron concern tremble and tingle from stem to stern, but no damage resulted to either it or John’s head. There was but one man that balked when told that he must go into a booth to prepare his ballot and who declared that “if it has become to such a point where an American citizen cannot mark his ticket wherever he pleased, he proposed not to vote at all;” upon second thought, however, he concluded to go through the imported form.
While the system was met with general favor, it will be apt to be too cumbersome when it comes to a general election with a full ticket.
Of course, it did not exactly “prove too cumbersome” when it came to general elections, although it did prove pretty cumbersome. I remember one of the last paper ballots before electronic counting machines came in was so large it barely fit in the voting booth.
Nowadays, we take our secret ballots very seriously. Back in the day, though, they were looked upon with more than a little suspicion.