Much to, I suspect, the relief of just about everyone in the U.S., not to mention the rest of the entire world, we’ll be heading to the polls next week to elect a President, as well as a host of down-ballot state and local officials.
It’s probably understating the situation to say this has been one of the most unusual Presidential campaigns in the nation’s history. Similar to the 2016 presidential election, one of the nation’s two major political parties has found itself with a candidate that public opinion polls say much of the country intensely dislikes—and that includes a surprisingly large portion of his own party. This despite being an incumbent for the office.
In addition, the strangeness has been heightened by the campaign concluding right in the middle of an unprecedented surge during one of the worst worldwide pandemics to strike in more than a century. The Federal Government’s refusal to coordinate the response to the pandemic has led to general unease among voters, which, in turn, has also led to unprecedented numbers of voters casting their ballots by mail or during in-person early voting.
But despite all the drama surrounding the election, those who have cast their ballots early, or those who decide to go to the polls in person on Tuesday, Nov. 3, will find the usual set-up of voting booths arranged so we can fill out our ballots in private and then have them counted anonymously.
And, in fact, we take voting by secret ballot for granted, but that’s not the situation our great-great-great-grandfathers (our great-great-great grandmothers not being allowed to vote) found when they went to the polls. Not until 1891 were Illinois and Kendall County residents allowed to cast their ballots in secret, marking the end of a voting process that had begun millennia before.
Although we like to think that democratic tools like voting are relatively modern processes, voting using ballots has a long and honorable history in both the East and the West. The ancient Greeks pioneered the use of ballots as early as the 5th Century B.C., using ballots that ranged from kernels of grain to colored balls. Farther east, balloting was used in India before 300 B.C.
Later, balloting was used during the Roman Republic, but gradually disappeared as government became more and more autocratic, and voting virtually disappeared for hundreds of years.
Not until the 13th Century was balloting revived by some Italian city states. By the 16th and 17th centuries, balloting had crossed the English Channel to Great Britain.
The first use of voting by ballot in the New World was practiced by the General Court of Massachusetts, which used the process to select governors after 1634. Gradually, balloting became widespread. Its existence was assumed by the U.S. Constitution as well as state constitutions after the nation won its freedom in the Revolutionary War.
But voting during that era was a lot different from what it means to us today. At that time, ballots were often passed out throughout the community—no polls necessary—and at other times the ballots were pre-marked. When a vote was cast, it was done in the open, often orally—reading and writing skills were often absent among many in the general population during those early days—and there were usually separate ballot boxes for each political party. It was as if every general election was a partisan caucus.
It was a system open to coercion and, to modern sensibilities, almost unbelievable violence, especially in the nation’s cities. In the middle years of the 19th Century, 89 voters were killed during election violence in the United States.
In the 1870s and 1880s, a parade of financial crises called panics—we’d term them depressions these days—plagued the nation. A general public that was becoming more educated in the ways of critical thinking, thanks to the nation’s public schools, and more disenchanted with being told what to do by politicians who were little more than lapdogs of big business, clamored for change.
Australians had been voting by secret ballot since 1856. Great Britain had adopted the system of secret ballots in 1872, and by the late 19th Century here in the United States, the public was ready for a system that would allow every voter to cast their ballot without fearing for their life or being otherwise intimidated.
The U.S. Constitution grants the individual states the authority to organize and conduct elections, so any change had to take place at the state level. Agitation for safe, secure voting had two parts. First, ballots had to be provided by the government so that voters couldn’t be intercepted on their way to the polls and their ballots stolen. Second, voting had to be done in such a way that no one but the voter knew individual votes were cast. After some study, it was decided the Australian Ballot system was by far the most fair.
Under the new system, ballots were to be printed at public expense and would be distributed only at official polling places. When ballots were marked, voters would place them in locked ballot boxes to secure them until they were counted. The states of Kentucky and Massachusetts became the first to institute the Australian ballot, followed by New York and then the rest of the states. After approval by the Illinois General Assembly, the first election by secret ballot was held in Kendall County in the local elections of November 1891.
Not that everyone was looking forward to the new system, of course. The system was popular in the South because it discriminated against former slaves, immigrants, and others who could not read the names on the ballots. Others thought that voters should be sufficiently proud of the candidates they were voting for to announce it publicly.
In October of 1891, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, observed: “In a few weeks we shall be called upon to vote by a new system imported from Australia. No tariff will be was paid on it, perhaps having been admitted under reciprocity.”
During succeeding weeks, the Record included a number of articles explaining how the new voting system would work and instructing voters on the process. In addition, public meetings were held in communities throughout the county to explain the new procedures.
In the Record’s Nov. 4, 1891 edition, Rank wrote: “Today we do as the Australians do. As everyone will want to try the new style of voting, a good turnout may be expected.”
And, once again, remember: “everyone” in that era meant strictly men.
In Oswego, a Mr. John Pitt—who seems to have been somewhat of a character—had the honor of casting the first secret ballot under the new system, although not without a few problems that entertained bystanders. Rank wrote: “He [Pitt] 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 jingle from bow to stern, but no damage resulted to either it or John’s head.”
Presumably, Pitt’s exploit was the highlight of the day, although it was also apparently instructive because no more booth diving was reported.
Not everyone was happy with the new system, of course.
“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 when an American citizen cannot mark his ticket wherever he pleased, he proposed not to vote at all,” Rank reported, adding, “Upon second thought, however, he concluded to go through the important forms.”
The new voting system proved both successful and popular, although there were still some lingering doubts about whether secret balloting would really catch on. “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 slate,” Rank predicted.
Rank’s prediction was not out of line. Those of us who voted back before ballots changed to the kind with computer-read blocks we fill in will remember the sheer size of the last full-sized paper ballots that made trying to fill one out in the confines of a voting booth an interesting exercise.
But in the end, of course, the Australian Ballot was officially and permanently adopted here in Illinois as well as nationwide, and its direct, computer recorded and tabulated descendant is still in use today in Kendall County, although sadly not enlivened by the entertainment value provided by Mr. Pitt.