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The History Of How We Vote: From Drunken Parties To Private Booths


We have always had many ways to vote here in the United States. But at the beginning of American democracy, it was much more varied than just mailing in a ballot or standing in line to vote like we see today. It was also far less equitable. The hosts of Throughline, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, have been exploring the history of voting.


RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: It all started with voice voting.

JILL LEPORE: Viva voce is the Latin for that.

ARABLOUEI: Viva voce - literally, living voice - was one of the earliest forms of voting, where you - assuming you're a white landowning man - basically shouted your vote from the rooftops in front of all of your neighbors, usually while fighting over a keg, a candidate-sponsored keg, no less. And the whole day is basically a huge party.

LEPORE: 'Cause remember - it's Election Day. It's a holiday. There's a ton of drinking. Everybody's there. It's, like, a big, like, tailgate party. Like, it's a big celebration of public life.

RUND ABDELFATAH: This is Jill Lepore.

LEPORE: I teach American history at Harvard, and I am a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I also host a podcast called "The Last Archive."

ABDELFATAH: There were lots of ways to vote, from viva voce to writing your candidate's name on a scrap of paper - if you knew how to write at all. Some counted beans or bullets or kernels of corn, and others would stand on opposite sides of the town square for a poll, a physical counting of heads. But one thing was for sure.

LEPORE: It was important, politically, that voting be open.


ABDELFATAH: How you voted was left up to the states to decide. Meanwhile, as each state was designing its own process, there was another system taking shape, too - political parties.

LEPORE: And so political parties began trying to think about how to make sure that they're maximizing the votes of their supporters.

ABDELFATAH: And they realized they could tap into one of the most exciting advances of the early 19th century - printing, cheap printing.

ARABLOUEI: This was all happening at a time when more and more men could not only read but vote. By the end of the 1820s, most states had adopted universal white male suffrage - meaning you didn't have to own land anymore. You didn't even need any money. You just needed to be a white guy who could get your hands on a party ticket.

LEPORE: They were giant sheets of paper, these, you know, flaming red or bright blue ballots - right? - that signaled your party loyalty.

ARABLOUEI: This empowered the party system. And the more solidified the parties, the more splintered the public, which set off a whole new set of problems.

LEPORE: It became extremely dangerous to vote.


ARABLOUEI: Violence and intimidation wreaked havoc on elections, especially for those voting in the minority. But this wasn't the only problem with the party ticket system run by corrupt party bosses. People soon realized that they could use their vote for something other than voting - they could use it to eat.

LEPORE: And people, you know, sell their votes for a sandwich.

ABDELFATAH: The economy boomed during the Industrial Revolution, and so did the wealth gap. And that...

LEPORE: Will require a wholly new way of imagining the act of voting.

ABDELFATAH: Because the people in power weren't only watching over their employees at work; they were watching them at the polls.

LEPORE: Like, let's say I own a factory, and you are my employee. And we both go to vote, and I want to vote for this guy who's going to reduce taxes on factory owners. Well, I employ you. And I'm going to say to you, you got to vote the way I vote or I'm going to - you're - going to fire you, right? What are you going to do? You're obviously going to vote the way I tell you to vote 'cause I'm going to watch you vote.


ARABLOUEI: Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a movement had been growing to make voting a more private affair.

ABDELFATAH: In 1856, the Australian ballot - aka, the secret ballot - became law in Australia. Soon after, England jumped on board, and Parliament passed the Australian ballot, too. Americans start to catch on, state by state. In 1888, Massachusetts became the first to adopt the secret ballot.

LEPORE: And one of the ways that you can think about the reform is that it's both what we would call a progressive-minded reform in that it is ensuring the fairness of elections and the ability of all people to participate politically, but it's also quite a reactionary reform.

ARABLOUEI: Meaning that even though there wasn't public pressure at the polls anymore, people in power still found ways to suppress voters.

LEPORE: If you think about that act of getting a printed ballot, which has all the different party nominees on the ballot, and then going into a booth to vote privately and secretly, without being able to talk to anybody else, you have to be able to read. So the secret ballot is adopted in a place like Massachusetts in order to disenfranchise the truly poor, who can't read.


ARABLOUEI: And the thing is, this wasn't just happening in Northern industrial states.

CAROL ANDERSON: So Mississippi in 1890, poor African American men and poor whites were actually beginning to join together politically because the robber barons were taking them to the cleaners.

ABDELFATAH: This is Dr. Carol Anderson, a professor, historian and author of many books, including her latest, "One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy."

ANDERSON: And so the Legislature, the power in Mississippi, looked up and said, Lord, we got to stop this thing. So they talked about cleaning up the election, removing corruption from the ballot box, ensuring the integrity of our elections. But what it did was it removed African Americans by using the legacies of slavery - like poverty, like illiteracy - as the means to block African Americans from the ballot box.


ARABLOUEI: A reform meant to protect those with the least amount of power was used by those in power to keep folks out of politics altogether.

ABDELFATAH: And this overall shift that we see in the process of voting, from a rowdy public spectacle to a private affair, has a big symbolic impact, too.

ARABLOUEI: When you're all alone in that little booth, it can be hard to remember who you're voting for - not in terms of remembering a candidate's name or how to spell it, but actually remembering who your vote is for.

LEPORE: Secret voting has an unintended consequence, which is that it gives you the idea that your vote is just something private unto yourself, as opposed to a public commitment and a public statement that you make as a citizen.

ANDERSON: When you have a stronger collective good, the society itself is stronger. When it's all about me and I got mine and the hell with you (laughter), when you have a society that is riven with that, you have things that really don't work.


GREENE: Carol Anderson there. She was speaking with the hosts of Throughline, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei.


Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.