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Mail-in voting
Historically Speaking
James Finck
James Finck

With the shutdown of everything non- essential and social distancing becoming the new normal, one area of concern is voting. At the very heart of our democracy is the ability to vote. However, if we eliminate gatherings, as we have been instructed to do, voting is problematic. As of now the presidential vote hopefully will go forward as planned, but we have seen a disruption in primary voting. One of the options being floated is a mail-in vote. For some, changing how we vote goes against what it means to be American; however, historically speaking, we only started our current system of voting in the 1880s. 

First and foremost, it is important to understand what the Constitution says about voting. Article I. Section 4 reads, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” In other words, voting practices are controlled by the states and different states could have various practices. Because of this, states had a great deal of power over who could vote until the 14th and 15th Amendments were passed.

In early America, ballots were not provided; you were expected to bring your own. You could make your own ballot, but a popular way to vote was to take an already filled out ballot provided by your political party, not unlike the sample ballots found at some polling stations today. Usually these ballots were color coded so that foreign speakers or illiterate voters could make sure they voted for the correct party. However, color-coded ballots also made it easy for political bosses to make sure you voted for the correct person.

Unlike now, voters were not expected to cast an anonymous vote. The idea was that you should not be ashamed of who you voted for. The reason the pollsters were wrong in 2016, and I expect the same in 2020, was that many Republicans wanted to vote party but did not want to admit they voted for Trump. Early Americans were expected to vote for the common good, not for self-interest.  

The switch to the secret ballot began occurring in the 1880s to battle corruption. By the Gilded Age, corruption had emerged as one of the leading political issues. The idea became so prominent that it threatened the Republican presidential dynasty, as the party divided internally between the Stalwarts, who wanted to keep the status quo, and the Mugwumps, who wanted real reform. 

What was happening was that floods of immigration changed local politics in many ways. As immigrants got off the boat, they were met by party members from their homeland who provided them with a place to live already prepared and a job for them to start. This is why so many Irish became policemen and firemen; the Irish were in control of those occupations. Of course they were expected to vote for whoever the political machine ran. It was easy to vote for the right person, especially when the organization provided a filled-out ballot. 

As bad as this looks today, political machines were not all bad. Early American cities had a plethora of issues – water, sanitation, paved roads, welfare, and eventually electricity. These issues were too big for most city governments to handle. It was the political machines that stepped in to handle the problems, of course with kickbacks for themselves. In some ways, the political machines were the only voice the poor had. But in other ways the machines were taking advantage of the poor. 

The power of the political machines led to middle- and upper-class Americans fighting so hard for political change. They fought for the passage of the Pendleton Act. This created a civil service exam where a test was given and, instead of political handouts, the most qualified were given jobs. With Pendleton passed they next fought for a secret ballot. If machines could not promise jobs, and votes could not be bought, it was harder for the machines to control the poor population. Pendleton was passed in 1883 and in 1888 Massachusetts became the first state to use the secret ballot and over the next decade the rest began to follow. 

The mail-in ballot is not the same thing as the open ballot of the 19th Century, but it does pose similar circumstances. It may be the great equalizer that allows for more democratic participation than ever before, especially if we are social distancing. However, it could also result in less control for non-English speakers, under-educated persons, or under-employed voters. Not that voter tampering would be openly used, but there is potential for representatives of a company, union, community, or immigration group to pass out completed ballots and offer to mail them in for voters after voters fill in their personal information. We have seen something similar with McCrae Dowless in North Carolina collecting absentee ballots in 2018. I am not saying this will happen or that we should not use a mail-in ballot. Historically speaking, I am just showing what happened in the past.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or on Facebook.