Election day is upon us! We’ve all received numerous mailings and seen countless ads; now it’s time to make our way to the polls to perform our civic duty and receive the iconic (and much desired) “I Voted” sticker. Filling out our individual ballots and sliding them into the ballot box seems routine to us, but this was not the original voting practice of the Commonwealth. A dive into the archives can help us look into the history of voting in Massachusetts and the integral role our state played in establishing our voting practices today.
Pasted on the pages of one of the many bound books in our collection is a series of political ballots from the 1870s and 1880s. You can see these ballots belong to both familiar and unfamiliar parties – from the “Regular Republican Ticket” and the “Regular Democratic Ticket” to the “Liberal Republican Ticket” and the “Regular Greenback Labor Ticket.”
Political ballots, or party tickets, were created in the 19th century to make it easier for people to vote. Prior to these ballots, Massachusetts voters had to write down who they wished to elect. This meant voters had to not only remember the names of their desired candidates, but also the spelling of the names to avoid the possibility of the vote being thrown out. While early voters could remember the few names of elected officials within the small colony, as Massachusetts’s state government grew, this task became much more challenging. Enter David Henshaw.
Henshaw, a Bostonian, decided to take a printed list of 55 candidate names and submit it as his ballot in 1829. For over one hundred years, Massachusetts law had required voters to handwrite their vote, but Henshaw challenged this practice. His act led to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case: Henshaw v. Foster. The Supreme Judicial Court ultimately recognized that the original law did not foresee how large the government would grow and how many candidates voters would have to elect; therefore, the Court determined that printed ballots were acceptable. And so began the mass production of party tickets in Massachusetts, and, soon, the nation.
Party members printed these ballots in newspapers or distributed them on the streets. Party leaders soon realized that by incorporating party symbols, elaborate designs, and vivid colors in their ballots, they could appeal to more voters, both literate and illiterate. Below you can see how parties in Massachusetts sought to visually appeal to voters. You may even notice the names of a few Hinghamites: John D. Long, Charles W.S. Seymour, Arthur Lincoln, and Alexander Lincoln.
If politicians disagreed with the candidates chosen to be on their party’s ballot, they sometimes chose to rebel by creating their own party ballot. If there was just one candidate a voter didn’t like on the ballot, the voter could cut out the name of a desired candidate and paste it over the name of the original candidate. You can see on the ballot below that one voter preferred “Henry Stephenson of Hingham”.
Over the years, parties found ways to intimidate voters into taking their ballots or stuffed the ballot boxes themselves, resulting in a cry for reform. In 1888, Massachusetts became the first state to pass legislation requiring the creation and use of state-issued ballots which listed all candidates of all parties on one ballot, a practice Australia had already used effectively. Massachusetts once again began a voting system that the whole nation would eventually adopt, a system that is currently in practice today.
So as you make your way to the polls, remember how far we’ve come as a state and a nation to ensure our democratic experiment is a success!
To learn more about party tickets and voting, check out these articles/sites referenced:
“19th Century Political Ballots” by the Boston Athenæum http://cdm.bostonathenaeum.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16057coll29
“Rock, Paper, Scissors: How we used to vote” by Jill Lepore https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/10/13/rock-paper-scissors
“Vote: The Machinery of Democracy – Paper Ballots” by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History http://americanhistory.si.edu/vote/paperballots.html
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