Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The secret ballot once served to disenfranchise "those people"


In honor of today's Super Tuesday primaries -- or maybe we should call it the SEC primary since so many of the contests are in the South -- here's some history of voting and suppression of voting that I didn't know about until listening a recent Fresh Air interview that host Terry Gross did with historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore.

Of course I support any measures that increase civic participation: democracy dies if it is only a passive spectator sport. And for that reason, I'm suspicious of voting by mail which makes casting a ballot such a solitary experience. This country experienced its highest percentage turnout of the potential electorate in the last decade of the 19th century. Those elections were rowdy civic festivities.

But Lepore pointed out that these hurly-burly contests were probably not something we would applaud today.

In fact, the secret ballot is a latecomer in American political culture. It isn't really adopted - the first presidential election where the secret ballot is the preponderant mode of voting is 1896, which is also the first presidential election where some is not killed on Election Day.

... So the whole idea of being a good citizen requires publicly exercising your franchise ... the government didn't supply a ballot. ... You'd basically [act] like a caucus. You'd go to the polling place and ... if you are voting for Smith, [you would] stand over here against the butcher's. And if you're in favor of Jones, stand over there down by the library. And that's how the votes were made. And the polls would be counted. ...poll means the top of your head, so people would count the tops of people's heads, and that's why it was called the polls.

So the call to reform public voting, or what was known as open voting, was super controversial ... Massachusetts was the first to do it. And they had this idea that the government would supply these envelopes... the party system got really strong, and newspapers were partisan, [so] the Republicans would print a ballot - like, a whole party ticket. It would be, like, we'll say it's red. And the democratic newspaper would print a blue party ticket. And so you'd go to the town hall - this is when oral voting had kind of been replaced by paper voting because people were literate. ... you'd have this giant, long sheet, like a railway ticket, like two-foot long. It would be brightly colored. And so people would try to prevent you from getting to the ballot box and casting your vote. The parties would hire these thugs to go down there. ... but people would die.

... [The secret ballot] was first passed in Massachusetts and New York in the 1880s. But then for years, the only other places that adopted the secret ballot - which is a written ballot supplied by the government to each voter - was the South after Reconstruction because it was a way to disenfranchise newly-enfranchised black men ... none of them knew how to read. I mean, they'd been, you know, raised in slavery, lived their entire lives as slaves on plantations. And so ... the real success of the secret ballot as a national political institution had to do with the disenfranchisement of black men.

If you could cut your ballot out of the newspaper, and you're going to vote a party ticket, and knew you wanted to vote Republican, and that ticket was going to be red, you didn't have to know how to read to vote. Immigrants could vote. Newly-enfranchised black men in the South could vote.

...But people in the North were like, hey, we don't really like when all those immigrants vote. And people in the South were like, we really don't want these black guys to vote... [S]o they ... colluded ... very much motivated by making it harder for people who were illiterate to vote. It's essentially a de facto literacy test. ... there [were] some counties in Virginia, I think it is, that in the 1890s they printed some regular ballots. But then they printed ballots in Gothic type - like, deep medieval Gothic type. And they give all those ballots to the black men. ...

You can read more about this history in Lepore's 2008 New Yorker article, Rock, Paper Scissors: How we used to vote.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

You should review Farrakhan's generally accurate criticism of Clinton when considering the
black vote in the Sanders-Clinton contest.

Brandon said...

Interesting. Voting by mail shouldn't be the only option but it's great if you can't get to the polling place (if you're ill, disabled, or will be out of town). The secret ballot: No one but God and me will know for whom I vote, unless I tell people.

janinsanfran said...

Dear Anon: Black people and everyone else are confronted with inadequate choices to confront the Hair Force One thug. I'm a big believer in looking at the horror of it all -- and doing whatever I can to live to fight another day. And I'm at a damn sight less risk that many people, especially the young people.

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