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