Voting Was Very Different in 1872

H. Balling, "Victoria C. Woodhull at the Polls," Harper's Weekly, 25 November 1871

H. Balling, “Victoria C. Woodhull at the Polls,” Harper’s Weekly, 25 November 1871

With less than two weeks until the 2016 election here in the United States, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how the voting process has changed since Victoria Woodhull’s time. Today we go into a private, curtained booth or at least stand at shielded machines to cast our vote.  Unless we divulge it, there isn’t supposed to be any way for anyone else to know who we voted for.

In 1872, not so much.

When I went into my research for Madame Presidentess, I had no idea that votes weren’t always anonymous.  America began using the “Australian Ballot” for presidential elections in 1888. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Australian Ballot is defines as “the system of voting in which voters mark their choices in privacy on uniform ballots printed and distributed by the government or designate their choices by some other secret means.” 1888 is also the same year America used the first mass marketed automated polling system – the Myers Automatic Booth.

This ballot for the Equal Rights Party at the re-enactment of 1872 shows what the ballot for Victoria may have looked like. Note that no historical ballots for her exist.

This ballot for the Equal Rights Party at the re-enactment of 1872 shows what the ballot for Victoria may have looked like. Note that no historical ballots for her exist.

I also didn’t know that your voting tickets weren’t always given to you at your polling place. Ballots were printed by regional printers, often in the newspapers and sometimes were written out by hand.

There was little uniformity in ballots. Some listed the Presidential Electors, some the candidates, some had photos of the candidates, some were small, some were excessively large. Some places had voters sign their name on the back to prevent fraud.

It was the responsibility for the parties as private organizations to provide these tickets. Parties had to station people at precincts in order to distribute tickets. Both had to be done before election day.

Few people at the time understood the political machine. (Actually, I’m not sure how many of us now really understand it.) Party agents translated platforms for the masses and were known to employ deception, bribery and manipulation to get votes for their candidate.

Voting took place in the county courthouse in the large towns, while immigrant neighborhoods favored the saloon as a polling place. In the country, saloons, general stores, homes, churches, fire stations, warehouses and livery stables all functioned as polling places. When Victoria attempted to vote in 1871, her polling place was a furniture store.

Intimidation and physical violence at polling places was common. Parties often provided free drinks (especially at saloons) to voters as an inducement to vote. Some even got them drunk before they voted so that the voter could be swayed. (If you want more information, I found this article on voter fraud in the 1800s very interesting.) Labor unions, employers, pastors/priests and hired thugs were all people a voter had to fear, especially if he was going to vote for someone those people didn’t want him to vote for. People had their houses burned or were beaten up or fired for going against the wishes of employers or unions.

The voting window separated the election officials from the voters. This required voters to step up onto a platform in full view of everyone else in the room to cast their vote. Men handed their ballot to the official, who put it in the corresponding box or glass globe labeled with the party or candidate, which was out of reach of the voter, but within sight of all. Tickets were only recognized as votes once they were in the hands of election judges.

Some states, like Missouri and Minnesota, allowed verbal voting, whereby a vote was stated publicly and recorded. This also made it very easy to know how an individual voted.

Women Voting
As early as the late 1860s, women were attempting to vote, even though they didn’t yet have the legal right. In 1868, in Vineland, New Jersey, 172 women cast their ballots in a separate box during the presidential election and vowed to do so again each year until they were granted the right to vote. Women in the Wyoming and Utah territories were granted the right to vote in 1869 and 1870, respectively.  In 1871, Victoria Woodhull led a group of women in an attempt to vote that was documented by reporters. It is said that one woman managed to cast her ballot amid the chaos. The following year, Susan B. Anthony and 15 other women were arrested while voting for President Grant. Women continued to try to vote until finally being granted the right in August 1920.


Ackerman, Donald l. That’s the Ticket! A Century of American Political Ballots.

Bensel, Richard Franklin. The American Ballot Box in the Mid-19th Century.

Woman Suffrage Timeline