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How Americans voted in our earliest days — and how Lincoln refused to vote for himself

For more than the first century of American history, the basic voting process bore no resemblance to the civilized affair we now practice, writes Jill Lepore in the New Yorker.

Abraham Lincoln
Library of CongressAbraham Lincoln

Don’t forget to vote (as if anyone could forget on an Election Day like this one).

I haven’t bored you since last Election Day with the adorable story of how Lincoln refused to vote for himself on Election Day in 1860, and so I’ll close with a recap of that, since thinking about Lincoln might be a salve for some of our wounded confidence in American politics.

But first, to set the stage, I’ll offer a link to this excellent New Yorker overview of how America has voted over its history. Professor Jill Lepore, who is somehow both a regular New Yorker writer and the occupant of an endowed chair in history at Harvard, reminds us that for more than the first century of American history, the basic voting process bore no resemblance to the civilized affair we now practice. The government did not print ballots on which voters marked their choices. In the earliest days, voters were required to stand up at a meeting and announce for whom they were voting. Later, the main practice was something like this. Each party would print and distribute ballots to its supporters. Sometimes, the ballot would be printed in the partisan newspapers and voters would tear them out.

On those ballots were listed all the party’s candidates. A supporter would simply carry the preprinted, party-line ballot into the polling place and stick it in the ballot box. Often the ballots were of recognizable colors so that anyone’s partisan preference was visible to all observers and crowd outside the polling place would cheer and boo at the sight of a colored ballot. (It was technically permitted, if you didn’t want for the entire party line, to modify the ballot by crossing off one of the names and writing in someone else’s, but this would be rare.)

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There were also incidents, and Lepore’s piece opens with a pretty amazing vignette, when supporters of one party would attempt to forcibly waylay, with physical violence and even gunfire, the poor slob whose job it was to carry a big pile of ballots favoring the other party, because if that white guy (always, of course, a white guy because only white males could vote) didn’t arrive with the ballots, the supporters of that guy’s party might have no way to vote.

Governments didn’t start providing preprinted ballots offering an actual choice of candidates, and a private place in which voters could fill them out, until the latter half of the 19th century. This system, known as the Australian Ballot (because the practice originated down under) was controversial because it was considered unmanly and somehow shameful to want to express one’s preference outside the view of one’s neighbors.

So in 1860, ol’ Abe was the Republican nominee for president of the United States. I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll say again that until roughly the William Jennings Bryan period at the end of the 19th century it was considered scandalous for a presidential candidate to do anything we would consider to be “campaigning.” They gave no public speeches, made no campaign promises and sought only to modestly allow that, if elected, they would serve. And that was very much the norm when Lincoln ran in 1860.

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In keeping with that tradition, many presidential candidates did not even vote — especially since, under the norms then in place, they would be publicly voting for themselves, a shameful, self-serving act of immodesty. But Lincoln had a lot of friends running on the Republican ticket in Springfield, Illinois, in 1860, and he wanted to be able to support them. So Lincoln decided to risk scandal by voting.

There was a big crowd of Republicans at Lincoln’s precinct who erupted into cheers when he showed up, and cheered again when Lincoln accepted a Republican ballot from the precinct captain or whoever it was that had the Republican ballots.

But then, in keeping with the requirement of modesty, Lincoln held up his ballot and, in view of the crowd, tore off the top portion on which his own name and the names of the Republican electors who were pledged to vote for him if the Republicans carried Illinois. Having thus created a ballot that enabled him to support his fellow Republicans but not immodestly vote for himself, he placed his ballot into the ballot box.