• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Democracy, the Way it Used to Be

The quote "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others" (or similar phrasing to that effect) is frequently credited to Winston Churchill. It may have been pilfered from elsewhere, but in a democracy the ownership of language is not absolute.


In This is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot by Alicia Yin Cheng, a founding partner of MGMT. design in Brooklyn, we have the first illustrated history of electoral ballot design. As publisher Princeton Architectural Press notes, the book "Illuminates the noble but often flawed process at the heart of our democracy." Cheng has assembled and annotated dozens of U.S. ballots from the 19th and early 20th centuries. This visual history reveals what passed for the democratic voting process—"the unregulated, outlandish and, at times, absurd designs that reflect the explosive growth and changing face of the voting public." The ballots provide insight into a critical time in American history fraught with electoral fraud, disenfranchisement, scams and skullduggery, as parties printed their own tickets and voters risked their lives going to the polls.


These pieces of paper serve as documents of the hard-fought and often wearily lost battles that made the one-man, one-vote system work—or not, depending on one's race, creed or color.



Administration Union Ticket, Sacramento, California, 1851. The inks on this three-color, double-sided ballot retain a vibrant hue. The artist’s signature is on the back. (Images courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

Above and below: Temperance tickets, Boston, ca. 1876. One warns: “Out of the grogshops come misery, woe, poverty and death.” On the other, voters were asked to “scratch the name of any man on the ballot that you do not think sound.” (Images courtesy of American Antiquarian Society)
Regular Democratic Ticket, 1884. Detailed hand-drawn ornamentation adorns these highly embellished ballots. The Buchanan ticket instructed voters: “Write your Name on the back of the Ticket” to verify their identity. (Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society)

National Democratic Nominations, California, ca. 1880. (Image courtesy of California Historical Society)

(Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

Democratic primary ephemera, Pennsylvania, 1918. Directions instruct voters: “Take this with you to the polls.” (Courtesy of the Elaine B. and Carl Krasik Collection of Pennsylvania and Presidential and Political Memorabilia, Detre Library & Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, Pa.)

Democratic primary ballot, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, 1968, listing all candidates with photos. (Courtesy of the Division of Political and Military History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Sample general election ballot, Florida, 2000. These infamous “butterfly” ballots caused confusion among voters in Palm Beach County. Mismarked and spoiled ballots forced a recount. (Courtesy of AIGA Design Archives and Special Collections)

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