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The wild history of ballot designs—and what they say about our democracy

Alicia Cheng’s new book, ‘This Is What Democracy Looked Like,’ examines voting through a very specific lens: the ballot.

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The presidential election is mere weeks away, and ballots are being cast as we speak—at the polls, in drop-off boxes, or popped  in the mail.

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[Image: courtesy Princeton Architectural Press]
In This Is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot, author Alicia Yin Cheng, looks at ballots throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Cheng, founding partner of design agency Mgmt, reveals how their colors, text, images, and decoration often say even more than the candidates up for election that cycle. The ballots are material evidence that show the evolution of voting—and democracy—in the U.S.

Early voting was a motley mess

Today, there are several different ways to cast your ballot. In the early days of the republic, there were many more. Voters in colonial America cast their votes by saying the name of their preferred candidate aloud to a government clerk (called the viva voce system). Some cast their vote by using corn for yea or beans for nay.

By the end of the 18th century, nearly all states had adopted paper ballots, but that made things even more confusing. Some paper ballots were simple slips of paper with a preprinted, single name; others listed the office title and voters wrote in their preferred candidate. Voters could also cut out a preprinted ballot from newspapers. In Tennessee, voters crossed out the name of the candidate they wanted; in other states, it was the opposite. And if there wasn’t a candidate you liked, no problem: Ballot modification was commonplace, according to Cheng, and polling stations provided glue pots so voters could stick alternative names on top of printed ones.

Ballots doubled as advertisements

With big, swoopy lettering and large, colorful type, ballots in 1876 were highly decorated and ornamental, according to Cheng, even including illustrations and political cartoons. While beautiful to look at, the decoration also served a practical purpose. “It signaled to the voters what the party was about, and it signaled to others who you were voting for,” says Victoria Bassetti, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters (she also wrote an introduction for a section of Cheng’s book). At the time, voting was still public. Ornamentation was advertising.

Democratic Liberal Ticket, 1876. [Image: courtesy courtesy of American Antiquarian Society]
These ballots also only listed the candidates from one party, because they were printed by the parties, not the government. That made the ballots highly susceptible to manipulation and fraud. “It’s very dictatorial in a way—there’s only one choice,” says Bassetti. “You either vote this ticket or that ticket. So when you look at the ballot, you see how strong the parties were and how polarized they were. It was fraught and tense.”

The ballots were symptomatic of a divided political system after the Civil War—and they resulted in one of the most contentious and hotly disputed presidential elections in history. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’s victory was in jeopardy due to disputed votes in a few Southern states. The two parties negotiated a compromise that gave Rutherford the presidency—on the condition that Northern troops left the South. This effectively ended Reconstruction and ushered in a new era of voter suppression under Jim Crow laws.

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Designs meant to exclude

While the ballots show democracy in action, some are visual cues of exclusion. Parties touted anti-Black and anti-Chinese platforms with racist imagery on their ballots in the 1800s. Some voter registrations were held on Jewish holidays to discourage participation, according to Cheng, and Jim Crow laws clamped down on voting rights for people of color. Once ballots became standardized, those kinds of racist expressions shifted to other materials like pamphlets, according to Bassetti.

Finally, an official state ballot

By 1888, voters had had enough of the partisan voting system, which Cheng describes as “unsystemized, untrustworthy, and susceptible to corruption.” And so, the government began to administer official ballots. The new design laid out all of a voter’s choices in one place, and it shifted the voting process from public to private. Though hard to pinpoint the exact reason for the shift, Bassetti suggests the transition from a public, “social democracy” correlates with a growing sense of private space in people’s personal lives.

Official Federal War Ballot for servicemen, 1944. [Image: courtesy of the Division of Political and Military History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution]

The ballot as an arsenal of democracy

Though in the midst of war, in 1944 the U.S. government mailed millions of ballots to servicemen overseas. Bassetti sees this as evidence of the country’s commitment to the electoral process. “It’s so representative of a time in American history when we were willing to put all our resources behind making sure democracy worked,” says Bassetti. “We made a super human and deliberate effort to get the ballot in the hands of every American no matter where they were.”

And when it comes to design, this 1944 official war ballot is clear and functional, with simple instructions. For Bassetti, the fact that the ballot was so straightforward shows “a unity of purpose.” It also illustrates how voting itself changed, as mechanized technology, such as gear and lever voting machines, replaced paper ballots in the early 20th century, necessitating a standardized layout and putting an end to the “freewheeling” design of the 19th century, writes Cheng.

Ballot design is broader than what’s on the page

But even after reviewing hundreds of years’ worth of ballots, Cheng says it’s important to look beyond the page. “It’s not just the design of the ballot, but how you register to vote, get your ballot, and cast your vote,” says Cheng. “The whole process is an expression of power, influence, cunning, and guile. We’re seeing that now in a perverse way. But it used to be far worse.”

Bassetti sees a few additional implications for our current election process, which is far from streamlined, with more than 10,000 election administration jurisdictions. When it comes to the vote count, she’s optimistic. “I’m struck by how like 1944 we are—how hard people are working to make their votes count,” says Bassetti. “People are demanding they vote. I look at all of this at a high level as a positive sign of how much people care about making their elections work.” But when it comes to the overall state of our democracy—the partisanship, the violence, the vitriol? Unfortunately, that’s far beyond the powers of the physical ballot, but making it easier and more straightforward to vote could be a first step forward.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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