Podcast – The Voting Process in the 18th Century

The Voting Process in the 18th Century

The Voting Process in the 18th Century

This episode explains the process of voting in during the early days of the Republic in the 18th and 19th Centuries, as it is quite different from what we are used to in the 21st Century.

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From the Book:
A History of United States Presidential Elections – Book 2

Greetings, today I will discuss the process of voting in during the early days of the Republic in the 18th and 19th Centuries, as it is quite different from what we are used to in the 21st Century.

The Constitution and Voting
Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution deals with the voting process in the United States.
Article 1
Section. 4.
The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.

As the reader can see, the Founders made the process simple and easy. This has allowed the process of voting to proceed and evolve with the needs of the growing country.

In the years before, and during, the Civil War the individual states governed the eligibility of citizens allowed to vote. Immediately after the Revolution most states limited the right to vote to white men over 21 that owned property. The property requirements varied by state. This was due to the belief that in order to vote intelligently voters needed an economic stake in the process. They believed that people that owed their livelihood to another person could be influenced by that person. Over time most states loosened property requirements and by the time of the Civil War about 90% of white men over 21 were eligible to vote. Women were still barred from voting as well as most free blacks. States used property requirements that applied to free blacks to limit their franchise. Slaves, of course, could not vote.

Up until paper ballots began appearing in the early Nineteenth Century, voters used a system called “viva voce,” or voice voting. In this system a voter arrived at the courthouse, where a judge administered an oath in which the prospective voter laid his hand on a Bible and testified that he was who he said he was and had not voted previously. After this ritual, the voter announced, out loud, who his choices for the various offices were, the choices duly noted by the clerk. This process took place in a carnival like atmosphere in which alcohol flowed freely and candidates for the offices campaigned actively. Turnout rates were high, at around 85%, perhaps encouraged by the party atmosphere. In many cities and towns election day included large, boozy parades, with political candidates sometimes renting a local tavern to provide alcohol to prospective voters.

Over time the number of candidates elected by the people, as opposed to appointed by the legislature, grew, making voice voting impractical. Thus, the first paper ballots began appearing. These were not anything like the modern paper ballots used today. These early ballots consisted of a blank piece of paper on which the voter wrote his choices in longhand. Massachusetts was apparently the first state to adopt this form of voting, however it spread, over time, to other states. Kentucky apparently continued to use voice voting until late in the Nineteenth Century. States that used the new form adopted rules on how to fold the ballot and other requirements.

Newspapers began printing the first paper ballots sometime before 1829. The concept was that the voter could cut out the ballot, indicate his chosen candidate and drop it in the ballot box. These ballots were not standardized from state to state or even locality to locality. Some ballots required the voter to cross off the candidate of their choice, on others the opposite was true. It didn’t take long for the newly developing political parties to see the possibilities of paper ballots.

The political parties quickly grasped the idea of printed paper ballots. At first they published these in newspapers, again, designed for the voter to cut out, mark and cast his ballot. The parties soon began paying to print out their own ballots. These ballots included only their own slates of candidates, thus there would be a Whig ballot, Democrat ballot, Republican ballot, etc. The parties sometimes used different colored ink or paper to differentiate their ballot from the other parties. Since voting was still public, it was easy to see who was voting for who. Many polls used a glass jar that the voter dropped his ballot into, thus his vote was visible for all to see. Straight ballot voting was required in most cases. Voters could be intimidated by ruffians paid by the party to apply pressure on voters to “vote the right way.” Many times gun fire or fistfights broke out around polling places.

Voting before the Civil War was still a public affair, in most states. Some attempts at reform had occurred over the years, however none were effective. A poll could be established just about anywhere, a private home, a tavern or courthouse. It was common for candidates to buy votes using cash, food, alcohol or a combination of all three. Since voting was public, it was easy to see if the person voted in the desired way. Many candidates hired thugs to coerce voters into voting the “right,” way. The modern voting booth familiar to most voters did not come into existence until 1888 in Massachusetts.

The reader must remember that the voting methods outlined here are only generalities of how the voting process unfolded. Each state had its own system, which mostly followed the information in this article, however some did deviate. There was no national standard for voting in each state in the years before the Civil War.

It may be a surprise to most voters to know that on election Day they are not voting for a Presidential candidate when they cast their ballot. Instead, they are voting for a slate of electors who are committed to vote for the candidate listed on the ballot. This fact is noted on the fine print beneath the Presidential candidates name. These electors are members of a select group of individuals who are part of an institution known collectively as the Electoral College.

The term Electoral College is not used in the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution and the Twelfth Amendment refer to citizens called electors as a group whose responsibility it is to cast votes for the President and Vice President as dictated by the results of the elections in their respective states. The term “Elector” was taken from the concept of electors used during the times of the Holy Roman Empire. These electors resided in the various German states and principalities of the Empire, and it was their task to choose an emperor when that seat became vacant. The term “college” is defined as a group of people who have defined rights and meet to act as a unit to perform a task. The system was borrowed from the Roman Centurial System in which Roman male citizens were gathered into groups of 100 called Centuries. These groups were permitted one vote per Century on proposals submitted to them by the Roman Senate. The term “Electoral College” was coined to define the group of citizens who met to elect the President. The term came into general use in the early 1800’s and was written into United States law in 1845.

The process of electing a President using electors instead of popular vote is best understood if we first understand certain conditions that the Founders and the early United States operated in. The nation was composed of thirteen individual States, each very defensive of its rights and powers. These States did not want to lose their rights and powers to a central government. National campaigns necessary for the election of a President by popular vote were almost impossible in a sparsely populated nation spread over a thousand miles of coastline and bound together by a road system that was very poor, and a communication system which was inadequate for the purpose. Not only did the Founders distrust political parties, the feeling was that a gentleman should not campaign for national office. Instead, it was felt, that the office should “find him”.

A number of ways of choosing a President were considered and rejected for various reasons. These alternate methods included having Congress or the State Legislators choose the President, or direct popular vote. Having the Congress or State Legislators select the President was feared to cause the President to be indebted to those particular institutions and not perform in the service of the people of the nation. Direct election, in an age of poor communications, was feared to result in a multitude of candidates because each State, or region, would vote for it’s “Favorite Son”. This would cause confusion and chaos, so the idea was dropped.

Instead, a system of having “informed citizens” gathered together by State to vote for the President was devised. The original electoral system designed by the Founders lasted only four elections and was revised by the Twelfth Amendment to be more functional in the political system which developed in the nation. So the Electoral College is composed of groups of citizens who meet in their respective States to cast ballots for the Presidential candidate which they are pledged to. It is designed to produce a President who meets the criteria of having received sufficient popular vote, though not necessarily a majority of votes, to govern effectively and votes which are distributed across the entire country, not just from a certain geographical region.

The Electoral College today is composed of 538 electors. Each state is entitled to one elector for each congressional district it has, plus one for each Senator. Thus a State with eleven Congressional districts would be entitled to thirteen electors. The District Of Columbia is entitled to as many electors as it would be entitled to if it were a State. But it cannot have more electors than the least populous State. A candidate must have a majority, or 270, electoral votes to win the Presidency. Each political party in a state meets and chooses the slate of electors who are then pledged to their candidate, and submits this list of candidates to the chief election official of their State. The slate which is called upon to cast its votes is determined by the election results in that state, and the criteria the state uses to allocate the electoral votes.

The Constitution allows the States to use their own systems of choosing electors. There are two general systems of vote allocation in use currently. The most common is the winner-take-all system in use in all but two states. Under this system, the electors all place their votes for the candidate who won the popular vote in that State. So even a razor thin majority in these States causes all of that states’ electoral votes to be cast for the winning candidate. The other system, utilized in Main and Nebraska, uses the results in the individual Congressional districts to choose a candidate. If a candidate wins a Congressional district, he gets that vote. The remaining two electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the popular vote.

So the electoral votes of these States could be split amongst the Presidential candidates. The electors are to meet on the Wednesday following the second Wednesday in December in years divisible by four in their respective State capitals to cast their electoral votes.

The Electoral College system was devised to produce a President uniquely qualified to govern based upon widespread national appeal, as evidenced by sufficient popular vote, distributed across all across the nation. A President would find it very difficult to get elected by appealing to just one region or class of voters. For over two hundred years it has performed this function with very few problems. The Founders, with some minor later adjustments, designed a very good system which has served the nation well.

This story is exerpted from my book, A History of United States Presidential Elections Book 2. Listeners can find the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and other online retailers in both ebook and softbound formats. You can also purchase the book direct from me on my website, mossyfeetbooks@gmail.com. You can contact me at mossyfeetbooks@gmail.com.
Thank you for listening.
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