11 U.S. Election Ballots of the 19th Century

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Have your absentee ballot in hand? Inundated with the campaign ephemera that arrives in daily droves? Headed to the physical polls?

Today’s dry ballot designs and campaign materials might have you hankering for a more expressive past—but be careful what you wish for, because they are indeed a mixed bag.

On Oct. 19, “This is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot” debuts in the colonnade windows of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art’s Foundation Building.

As the institution notes, historic ballots are “fugitive ephemera”; printed ballots are legally required to be destroyed, so such specimens are rare. “This is What Democracy Looked Like,” presented by the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, presents 26 19th-century ballots, culled from curator Alice Cheng’s book of the same name.

“Ballots today may look boring and bureaucratic, but they are the most direct tool of participatory democracy,” Cheng says. “The act of voting is a critical part of our civic discourse. From absentee votes to protest write-ins, ballots are a direct way for us to express ourselves as citizens. But historically there wasn’t any regulations for how a ballot looked or how it was produced. These visual artifacts demonstrate how voting has changed, helping us better understand how our struggle in making an imperfect system that is honest and fair might have evolved.”

The collection sheds light on what is today a little-known electoral period in U.S. history, when there was zero federal government oversight of ballots.

As the exhibition details, “In fact, the parties paid to produce, print and distribute their own ballots. It was a time of extreme partisanship that demanded adherence to a single party since voters were required to vote the full ticket, so ballots were designed to be eye-catching propaganda. Parties used colored inks, paper stock or illustrations (in some cases blatantly racist and xenophobic slogans), explicitly so party members could easily track which votes were cast, evidence of early methods of voter suppression and intimidation. By the early 20th century, a federally regulated ballot was introduced, leading to a design more familiar to us today.”

Below is a peek at the collection. It will be on view, appropriately, through Nov. 7.

Regular Republican Ticket, Massachusetts, 1878. Unusually precise example of multicolor printing using a chromatic press. Text is letterpress printed in different colors in one pass.
Independent Taxpayers Union Ticket, California, 1871. Multicolor print with handlettering in two colorways that uses yellow as a second color.
Regular Workingmen’s Tickets, California, ca. 1880s. Parties touted anti-Chinese platforms, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law barring a specific ethnicity from immigrating to America.
Independent Greenback Ticket, presidential electors, Massachusetts, 1878. The Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, who was 85 when he ran on the Greenback Party ticket, was the oldest person ever nominated by any political party to run for U.S. president.
South Division ballot for Democratic presidential electors, 1864. This dense yet precise lithographic ballot is an impressive display of hand-drawn type.
Temperance tickets, Boston, ca. 1876. Voters were asked to “scratch the name of any man on the ballot that you do not think sound.”
Union Ticket, California, 1864
National Democratic Nominations, California, ca. 1880.
Toleration Ticket, Connecticut, 1818. This early ballot has the party list printed multiple times on one sheet to save paper. The individual tickets would have been trimmed and distributed to voters.
Louisiana, 1904, with a densely typeset list of proposed amendments below the candidates’ names.
Americans made modifications to the Australian format by adding columns that allowed voters to choose a straight party ticket. This 1906 ballot from Pennsylvania shows names grouped by office with a straight party option.

Update: On Oct. 26, Cooper Hewitt is hosting a free online panel featuring Alicia Cheng in conversation with Samantha Bee, Zephyr Teachout and Victoria Bassetti. Find out how to RSVP here.