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The History of Ballot Design is the History of Democracy

As millions of Americans begin to head to the polls, here’s how our printed ballots have evolved

The act of voting has never felt so critical. With accusations of rigged elections, voter fraud, machine malfunctions, and vote tampering, the ballot is at the center of the debate. But before we start complaining about badly designed layouts and typography, let’s take a minute to examine how this banal and bureaucratic piece of paper represents our long struggle to make elections free, fair, and honest. While the nineteenth century was a lousy time for electoral equality and integrity, it was an amazing heyday for ballots.

A quick history: Before there were paper ballots, there was the human voice. Voting viva voce harkened back to the Greeks, and it worked in the early days of our republic, too. Local men would show up to the schoolhouse or tavern to publicly declare their allegiance to a candidate who was likely there to thank them in person. This system worked fine for a while but things got trickier with a larger crowd as the population swelled from 4 million to more than 23 million citizens by 1830. 

It wasn’t just the growth in population: the 1829 election of Andrew Jackson also led to a dramatic expansion in who could vote. Riding into office on an anti-establishment, populist platform, Jackson introduced universal suffrage for all white males who were now eligible to vote for a host of offices which were previously appointed. The electoral barn doors were blown wide open, ushering in a new era of election fever—and with it, a plethora of party tickets to be produced, distributed, and cast.

Political factions and splinter parties were proliferating wildly. Each municipality was left to their own devices to cope with the volume of voters, offices, elections, and polling places—nothing was regulated on the federal level. While the idea that local officials would let the parties take care of the hassle and expense of producing and distributing their own ballots seems bananas to us now, it made a lot more sense back then. In an era before amusement parks or movies, elections were the main public spectacle, featuring parades, steer roasts, and cannon fire. Partisan vitriol was rampant and helped feed the public’s insatiable appetite for sensationalist news. In the nineteenth century, ballots were deliberately designed to be eye-catching: colorful and typographically flamboyant, serving as pieces of campaign propaganda publicly displayed by the voters on election day. 

By the 1880s, voters and government officials had had enough of a system that was clearly corrupt; reformers demanded regulations that would restore value back to the vote. A new format that debuted in Australia established parameters that seem obvious to us now: an official ballot administered and distributed by the state, and a non-partisan layout that listed all the candidates, not just those from one party. But the most radical innovation? The ballot was to be marked in private. 

The secret ballot—derisively called the ‘kangaroo vote’—was not an immediate hit. Detractors claimed the sheer size of the ballot and volume of choices put too much stress on the voter, and that the format was biased towards candidates with an unfair alphabetical advantage (still a point of contention today). While the secret ballot offered privacy, its adoption initiated our enduring history of contested voter intent and disputed mark making—and sadly, the end of freewheeling ballot designs.

So as we gird ourselves for the upcoming election, enduring long lines, bureaucratic frustrations, faulty machines, and a global pandemic, take a minute to appreciate the mundane looking ballot you are about to mark in private. It took over a hundred years for the ballot to look this boring, and we should be thankful for it.

Early Ballots

Early ballots were printed using letterpress with the voter writing in the candidates name by hand. These pre-printed tickets from the 1850s made it easy confirm the sale of intoxicating liquors in Boston.

Ballots as Propaganda

Ballots were often used to illustrate a particular party platform, like this vivid anti-Chinese ticket for the Workingmen’s party in San Francisco. Several parties touted the protection of White labor, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law barring a specific ethnicity from immigrating to America.

Impressive Displays of Typographic Grandstanding

The mid- and late-nineteenth century was a period of heavy experimentation in the printing world. Wood type, metal type, and lithography were often combined, creating layouts that are impressive displays of typographic grandstanding.

DIY Ballots

Ballot modifications were not discouraged by political parties and were so habitual that small strips of gummed paper called “pasters” would be sent to voters or handed out at the polls. Glue pots were provided at polling stations so voters could literally stick alternative candidates’ names on top of the printed ones. Ballots layouts became more elaborate as a reflection of the period style, but also served as an attempt to foil pasting efforts with serpentine typesetting.

The Australian Ballot

The adoption of the new Australian ballot format in the late 1880s was a radical shift in format, but these examples are more aligned with ballots we recognize today. Mandated by the government, all candidates were listed by office and the ballot was cast in private. Despite the regulations, modifications still persisted, like this New York ballot from 1914 that used tiny emblems to denote party affiliation. Voters were now able to freely select candidates across different parties, but detractors claimed the layout was too arduous as the volume of candidates and offices necessitated sometimes huge and unwieldy trim sizes. 

Ballot reformers like civic activist Richard Childs proposed ‘short ballots’ to simplify the decision making process and make it easier for the average voter. “The people must take an interest in all their electoral work if they are to be masters. If they do not take an interest in a given ballot, there are two solutions—change the people or change the ballot,” he wrote in his 1911 book, Short Ballot Principles. “As the people are too big to be spanked, and since human nature in the mass responds but slowly to prayer, it is good sense to change the ballot.”  

Find more on ballot design in Alicia’s book This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot, published in June by Princeton Architectural Press. All images courtesy the American Antiquarian Society, the California Historical Society, and the New York Public Library.

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Design + Politics