How the Victorians Tackled Voter Fraud

Nov 26, 2016
central NC

A polling place in Massachusetts in 1891. (Alexander L. Peterman/Public Domain)
Back in the 19th century, Election Day in America looked quite different than it does today and believe it or not, there was even more drama. I was surprised to learn there were no official ballots. Political parties printed their own “party tickets.” Some states had standardized printing rules, but in many voters could write down the names of whomever they wanted to vote for. Kentucky actually voted by voice until almost the end of the 1800s.

Since parties printed their own tickets, each ballot listed the party’s candidates for all the seats at stake. Most voters accepted the pre-selected slate, rather than the candidates that most impressed them. There were measures a voter could take to vote against an undesirable candidate. They had to physically cut his name out of the party ticket. I was also surprised to learn that polling places were often set up in private homes. Although there was some separation between the election officials and the voters, there was no privacy.

By the 1880s, ballot reformers were looking for a new way to run elections, so they turned to Australia. Since the 1850s, Australian states had been pioneering a different method of electing leaders—they let people vote in secret. Their system used official ballots and provided space for people to vote without others knowing who they selected. With no way of verifying who a voter had actually cast a ballot for, political parties had less opportunity to manipulate the voting process.

After a close and contentious American presidential election in 1884, American states began seeing the appeal of a secret ballot. In 1888, Massachusetts was the first state to adopt the “Australian ballot” system, but it was followed quickly by Indiana, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Minnesota, Washington, New York, and all the rest.

Over the next century, states tweaked the design of their voting booths little by little. Today there’s still no centralized requirement for voting booth design. Each state has its own rules, and often it’s up to county clerks and election officials to make sure voters have a place to vote in private.


Yankee Brooke

First Sergeant
Jun 8, 2018
Imagine all the interesting ways a candidate's name would have been spelled when being written in. And being a poll worker having to count all those ballots...yikes. "Abraham Lincoln and Abrehame Lincon are the same person, right sir? How about Jone Breckenbridge?"


1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Apr 18, 2019
Upstate New York
Unlike today, there were a lot of voting irregularities in the 19th century - especially in the cities where those monitoring the ballot boxes did not know the voters. Albany, New York, near where I live was notorious for ballot box stuffing, as were many larger cities. I think it was in Chicago where the local machine's motto was "Vote early and vote often."