Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day Fun Facts

Long lines at the polls are predicted for this Election Day, which can certainly be a pain. Waiting in line is really nothing compared to what Americans once had to go through in order to cast a ballot, though. Perusing the history of Presidential elections is enough to make one happy to be voting in 2008 rather than 1808.

We elect Presidents on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Why? you ask. Well, we originally didn't vote for the President, but for the electors who chose the President. We still do this in that the popular vote determines who will make up the Electoral College, but originally those electors weren't pledged to any candidate. Presidential candidates' names didn't even appear on the ballot. On the one hand we didn't have a deluge of yard signs, robocalls, and advertising before elections, but on the other hand Presidents weren't exactly elected by the people. Back then Senators also weren't directly elected; they were appointed.

Anyway, states held elections any time they wanted, so long as the electors could make it to the capitol by December 3, the date they would choose the President. Because travel could take a while by horse or carriage, elections took place any time between mid-October and mid-November. Sometimes electors had trouble making it to the capitol in time, though, so it was decided to choose one national Election Day. Early November seemed best because the harvest was over then (remember those good old agrarian days?) and the electors would have a month or so to get to Philly or, later, DC. The white men of property (expanding suffrage is the real hallmark of our electoral history, but I'm not going to go into that here) needed to travel to get to the polling place to vote on electors. In those days caucusing or balloting took place in cities, towns, county seats, and everyone lived on farms, sometimes a day away. So, Monday was no good, because you'd have to travel on the Sabbath to arrive by Monday, and Wednesday was market day, when people needed to be in town but were busy selling and trading. Tuesday was deemed the least disruptive day to hold elections. National elections originally took place the first Tuesday in November, but then one year that fell on November 1 and everyone complained it was too early, so it was changed so that elections could never fall on November 1. Now November 2 is the earliest possible date, November 8 the latest.

It used to be that we voted by voice, yea or nay, or by throwing colored rocks or beans in a pot, yellow for Thomas, blue for Silas, etc. Those beans were a pain to count, though, and in lean years maybe even a waste of beans. In the meantime political parties had come to prominence (George Washington and John Adams actually had no party affiliation), and the system of direct election of people rather than electors had been devised. When you're voting for people for a bunch of offices beans become too complex, so the paper ballot made the most sense.

In order for the white men to vote, they had to bring a ballot with them. In other words, no ballots were provided by the government or local board of elections. By now pretty much all white men could vote, but not all of them could read. That didn't matter, since pre-printed ballots were provided by the political parties. You could also cut them out of the newspaper, if you could read and afford a newspaper, but why bother when the Whigs or Know-Nothings or Democrat-Republicans were happy to give you your already completed ballot? These were ususally printed on long and narrow pieces of paper and were commonly referred to as "tickets," and this is where the phrase "party ticket" was born.

Once someone gave you your ballot you had to get it to the Judge of Elections. Actually, I should rephrase that: Once someone gave you a stack of ballots, you had to get them to the Judge of Elections. Yes, you could hand in as many ballots as you could carry. This was the nineteenth century version of "absentee voting." Handing in the ballots was probably easier said than done.

The "polls" then consisted of a room where the Judge collected ballots. Voters weren't allowed in the room, however, in an attempt to ensure the integrity of the process. Probably also because many of the voters were blind drunk, but I'll get to that in a minute. One had to pass ballots to the judge through a window or a slot. To get to said slot or window, one had to make one's way through a throng of people milling around, attempting to prevent ballots of one party or another from being cast. The whole process resembled a violent video game come to life: Grand Theft Voting. Fights, even riots, were common on Election Days of yore.

The fact that votes were routinely purchased with liquor undoubtedly had a lot to do with this. Party bosses would hand out ballots in the back room of saloons. Anyone willing to cast a ballot would be treated to some rum, ale, whatever drink was at hand. Anyone willing to mill around and prevent the other guy's ballots from being cast could also expect a free drunk that day. Yes, I'm primarily talking about cities here, but farmers also enjoyed a drink or two while visiting the county seat. Election day violence, and bribery with alcohol, were one of the arguments for Prohibition in the first place, and were the reason that bars remained closed on Election Day even at Prohibition's end.

In short, we've come a long way, even if every once in a while an election hinges on a hanging chad or two. So go vote - the worst that will happen is a wait in line - and then go drink, because come tonight you'll be either happy or sad, or a little of both, and this long exhausting process will finally be over, and, most importantly, the bars will be open.

1 comment:

tunsie said...

I am glad that the victor won fair and square.the eyes of the world are upon us,as 2 here in this country,THE U S OF A,who can not have fair elections.You can steal an election in America.I am anxious 2 see how obama handles all the problems he inherited from his previous administration.tunsie