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19th Century Political Ballots: Regular Democratic Ticket, John Quincy AdamsIn October of 1924, Mayor James Michael Curley presented the Librarian of the Boston Athenæum, Charles K. Bolton, with the gift of over two dozen “ballots of elections held in former days in Massachusetts.”[1] The gift augmented the Athenæum’s holdings of nineteenth century ballots and enriched the institution’s significant local history collections.


The use of paper ballots in Massachusetts as an official mode of voting dates from the colonial period. Viva voce, the method of orally announcing one’s choice of candidate and other more public modes of voting had been abandoned in favor of hand-written paper ballot.[2] Apparently, expediency rather than privacy had been the motivating factor, as the law of the period stated that votes should be written on paper “open, or once foulded not twisted nor rowled up, that they may be the sooner perused.”[3]


Beyond the colonial period, the years of the early republic and into the first few decades of the nineteenth century, as the nation grew the governments of the eastern states and metropolises like Boston witnessed an increasing number of elective offices and the simultaneous rise of partisan party politics. Writing ballots in longhand became a laborious task often requiring the voter to compose a lengthy list. Consequently, printed ballots started to appear. In Massachusetts, the legitimacy of printed ballots was established by the state Supreme Court, after a printed ticket containing 55 names was contested in the election of 1829. In the resulting case of Henshaw v. Foster the court ruled that printed votes carried the same weight as hand-written votes as interpreted by the constitution. Subsequent to Henshaw v. Foster political parties began to issue ballots in proliferation.[4]


In nineteenth century America, political parties functioned almost as private clubs, offering little transparency and unhindered by government regulation. The selection of candidates to appear on the party ticket or ballot was ostensibly determined by the outcome of the party convention; but, as the ballots were printed by the party, names could be easily added or dropped in accordance with some closed door machinations. Additionally, divisive issues such as slavery often resulted in a lack of consensus, which often prompted the losing side to bolt. The bolting faction might produce its own ticket with a different roster of names from that of the “official” party ticket or an equally common practice was that of fusion, whereby the bolting members formed a coalition with a bolting contingent of the opposing party.[5] And what was an “official” party ticket? Fraudulent or bogus ballots designed to mislead the voter were not uncommon.[6]


Moreover, polling places of this period could be chaotic. To distribute their ballots to prospective voters, political parties printed them in newspapers to be clipped-out or they hired workers known as peddlers, hawkers, or bummers to hand the ballots out at the polls. Often the respective parties installed several of these ticket peddlers at the busiest polls, each vying for the attention of a prospective voter by waving and thrusting ballots. Parties might use visual ploys to catch the eye of a voter by varying the size and color of a ticket (A notable example in the Athenæum collection is a Regular Republican ticket of 1878 that features broad red stripes on the back). The conspicuous appearance of these ballots and the high visibility of the voting process in general would also allow party officials to track who voted their ticket, compromising the secrecy of the vote and creating a situation that was potentially rife with bribery and intimidation.[7] Calls for reform were inevitable. In Massachusetts, reform measures resulted in the passage of an 1851 law requiring ballots to be sealed in envelopes. Championed by Massachusetts Democrats and Free Soilers, the law was subsequently repealed by the Whigs in 1853.[8]


Ballots were meaningless pieces of paper until they were handed over to election officials or “judges of elections,” as they were called, and placed in a ballot box to be counted eventually.[9] Judges of elections were politically appointed by the party in ascendancy, which frequently resulted in charges of election fraud by the opposing party. In the immediate wake of the Civil War, general suppression of black suffrage in the South and election fraud in New York City in particular provoked a federal response to the problem. The Federal Elections Law of 1871 authorized federal oversight of state elections, and it was designed to thwart bribery, intimidation, voter impersonation, and repeating.[10] To be implemented, as it was regularly in Boston, the law had to be invoked by at least two citizens concerned about election fraud, at which point a federal court would appoint two supervisors from different parties for each election district. Additionally, U.S. Marshalls could appoint deputies to maintain order at the polls.


Although the Athenæum’s collection of ballots features some state and even national candidates, the majority are actually the product of Boston political elections. For the better part of the nineteenth century political elections in Boston were an annual event. When Boston incorporated as a city in 1822, the city charter, drafted by then state senator Lemuel Shaw (1781-1861), called for municipal government consisting of a Mayor, an eight person Board of Aldermen (enlarged to twelve in 1854), and a forty-eight person Common Council all to be elected annually.[11]


Viewed as a whole, the collection provides a sweeping history of the political and social forces of the nineteenth century. Republican tickets span the entire time period covered by the collection. Their Democratic counterparts begin to emerge in the final decade of the antebellum period, while at the same time the Whigs fade from the political arena. Significantly for Boston, the anti-Irish Know-Nothings (represented in the collection under their official name as the American Party) also make an appearance before the Civil War. The major social movements of the time are evidenced by the many temperance and labor tickets. Certain constituencies are also represented. The collection includes ballots produced by firemen and a contingent of civic minded voters, tired of partisan politics, who formed the Citizens’ tickets that sought to elect men with practical business experience rather than political acumen.[12] Additionally, the collection documents the ascendancy of the Irish as a force in Boston politics made manifest by the Irish born Hugh O’Brien (1827-1895), who served as the first Irish-Catholic mayor of Boston from 1884-1888.


The ever increasing calls for election reform in the post-Civil War period would cause the end of the party printed ballot. In Massachusetts Richard Henry Dana III (1851-1931) and the state’s Mugwumps spearheaded the movement for ballot reform.[13] Their efforts resulted in the adoption in 1888 of the Australian ballot system, a system named for the country that created it in 1856, which was subsequently adopted in Europe and Canada. Under this system, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to produce and distribute an official ballot. The state-issued ballots listed all the candidates, not just the candidates of a particular party, and names were grouped together in blocs according to office sought. Moreover, by taking the responsibility for producing and distributing ballots away from the political parties the Australia ballot system now allowed voters to fill out ballots in relative secrecy.


Will Evans
Chief Rare Materials Catalog Librarian
[1] Daniel J. Gillen (secretary to James M. Curley) to Charles K. Bolton, 31 October 1924, Broadside Collection, Boston Athenæum.
[2] Other parts of the country would retain a mixture of both viva voce and paper ballots well beyond the early national period, Kentucky being the last state to abandon the viva voce, when it adopted a paper ballot in 1891. See: Peter H. Argersinger. Structure, Process, and Party: Essays in American Political History (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1992), 48.
[3] The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts, Reprinted from the Edition of 1672, with Supplements through 1686 (Boston: City Council of Boston, 1887), 47.
[4] Eldon Cobb Evans, A History of the Australian Ballot System in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1917), 2.
[5] Richard Franklin Bensel, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 15.
[6] Argersinger. Structure, Process, and Party, 49.
[7] Evans, A History of the Australian Ballot System in the United States, 2.
[8] Argersinger. Structure, Process, and Party, 48.
[9] For an account of how votes were counted in Boston for a contested election in 1862 see: Bensel. The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, 53.
[10] For more on the law, see Argersinger. Structure, Process, and Party, 50.
[11] The Memorial History of Boston: Including Suffolk County ... ed. Justin Winsor and Clarence F. Jewett (Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1881), 3:222.
[12] For an outline of candidate qualifications for the Citizen’s ticket see the speech of Richard Onley (1835-1917), convention chairman as quoted in: “The ‘Citizens’ in Council,” Boston Globe, December 2, 1876. Despite the lofty rhetoric, the Citizens’ tickets often mirrored those of the Republican Party.
[13] Mugwumps were patrician Republicans who supported Democrat Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential election due to corruption associated with Republican candidate James G. Blaine (1830-1893). Their motives for ballot reform have been called into question. It has been posited that they used election fraud as an expedient excuse for ballot reform and that they were more concerned with maintaining the patrician power base by excluding the illiterate masses from the voting process. See Argersinger. Structure, Process, and Party, 53.



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