Monday, November 4, 2013

1880 election law reform in New York State

            In mid-19th century New York State, each party printed up their own ballots for voters to use on election day. The parties used color to make their ballots distinctive so they could identify who was voting for whom. Sometimes, ballots were printed on different sizes of tissue paper so that smaller ones could be folded inside larger ones and more than one ballot could be easily cast by one voter.
A scene at the polls on election day in 1857 published by Harper's Weekly.

            Because it was easy to identify who was voting for whom, corruption and intimidation became the rule in many communities. It became so bad during the Civil War and Reconstruction that New York joined fourteen other states to pass laws prescribing the color of the paper and the kind of ink that was to be used in the printing of the ballot in an attempt to secure honest elections. The New York election law provided that plain white paper was to be used for each ballot and that the names of the candidates were to be printed in plain black ink in type designated as “Great Primer Roman Condensed Capitals.” No “impression, device, mark, or other peculiarity whatsoever” could be printed on the ballot to distinguish one ballot from another in appearance.
            The law failed to accomplish its purpose because parties used different shades of white, cream or very white, so that it was still possible to tell what ticket a voter was using to vote.

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