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Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy, but the United States Constitution doesn’t say exactly how Americans should cast their ballots in elections. Article 1, Section 4 simply states that it’s up to each state to determine “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections.” Over the past 200 years, the mechanics of voting have evolved from open-air “voice votes” to touch screen digital consoles.
For the first 50 years of American elections, most voting wasn’t done in private and voters didn’t even make their choice on a paper ballot. Instead, those with the right to vote (only white men at the time) went to the local courthouse and publicly cast their vote out loud.
Known as “viva voce” or voice voting, this conspicuous form of public voting was the law in most states through the early 19th century and Kentucky kept it up as late as 1891. As voters arrived at the courthouse, a judge would have them swear on a Bible that they were who they said they were and that they hadn’t already voted. Once sworn in, the voter would call out his name to the clerk and announce his chosen candidates in each race.
Campaigning and carousing were allowed at the polling place, and a drunken carnival atmosphere often accompanied early American elections, which might explain why elections in the voice-voting era commanded turnout rates as high as 85 percent.
The First Paper Ballots
The first paper ballots began appearing in the early 19th century, but they weren’t standardized or even printed by government elections officials. In the beginning, paper ballots were nothing more than scraps of paper upon which the voter scrawled his candidates' names and dropped into the ballot box. Newspapers began to print out blank ballots with the titles of each office up for vote which readers could tear out and fill in with their chosen candidates.
Then the political parties got savvy. By the mid-19th century, state Republican or Democratic party officials would distribute pre-printed fliers to voters listing only their party’s candidates for office. They were called Republican and Democratic “tickets” because the small rectangles of paper resembled 19th-century train tickets. Party faithful could legally use the pre-printed ticket as their actual ballot making it easier than ever to vote straight down the party line.
READ MORE: Vote-by-Mail Programs Date Back to the Civil War
WATCH: Voting Tech
The Australian Paper Ballot
Partisan paper ballots ruled the second half of the 19th-century, leading to frequent accusations of voter fraud and calls for election reform. The solution came from Australia, which pioneered the first standardized, government-printed paper ballot in 1858.
The so-called Australian paper ballot, which was printed with the names of all candidates and handed to voters at the polling place, was first adopted in the United States by New York and Massachusetts in 1888.
The First Voting Machines
In the late 19th-century, Jacob H. Myers invented his lever-operated “Automatic Booth” voting machine, an engineering marvel that would come to dominate American elections from 1910 through 1980.
Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa, has researched the history of voting machines and concludes that Myers’ groundbreaking contraption had more moving parts than any other machine of its day, including the automobile. These early voting machines weighed hundreds of pounds, cost thousands of dollars and would be installed in the corner of the local town hall for decades.
Voting on one of these lever machines was easy. Each candidate for each race had a small lever next to his or her name and Americans voted by pulling down the levers of their chosen candidates. If they wanted to vote along a single party line, they could pull one lever that automatically selected the Republican or Democratic candidates.
But inside the machine, the vote-counting process was incredibly complex, says Jones. There were 200 or more levers on the face of the machine, and behind each lever were mechanisms that prevented the vote from being counted until the final lever was pulled (in case a voter changed their mind). The straight party levers had to be linked to every candidate lever on the ticket and none of it required a single watt of electricity.
“The only power required was muscle power to pull down the small levers to vote for candidates and then more muscle power to move the great big lever that opened and closed the curtain,” says Jones.
Unbeknownst to most voters, the action of opening the curtain on the voting booth was what finally counted the votes and reset the machine for the next voter.
“These machines inspired extraordinary public confidence because of their sheer physicality,” says Jones, who says that Myers’ company, Automatic Voting Machines, dominated 80 percent of the market. “But behind the scenes, it’s not clear that confidence was justified.”
Lever machines were mechanical, and a single missing tooth on a gear was known to cause serious miscounts that were rarely caught by election officials. And Jones says that the machines could be rigged with something as innocuous as the tip of a graphite pencil.
Punch Cards and ‘Hanging Chads’
The first punch card voting systems came out in the 1960s, when companies like IBM made punch cards look like the future of the computer age. The great innovation of punch cards, Jones says, was that ballots could be counted by computers, which could then produce instantaneous vote tallies on election night, something voters now take for granted.
But these systems also had drawbacks, which became painfully clear during the infamous Florida recount of the 2000 presidential election. That’s when Americans were introduced to new terms like “dimpled chads,” “pregnant chads” and “hanging chads.”
A chad is the small rectangle of paper that’s popped out of a punch card when the voter makes their selection. The problems start when a chad isn’t fully detached (a hanging chad) or only partially pushed in (a pregnant or dimpled chad).
During the drawn-out Florida recounts, election officials had to examine each punch card ballot by hand to determine if hanging or dimpled chads should be counted or thrown out.
READ MORE: How the 2000 Election Came Down to a Supreme Court Decision
Voting by ‘iPad’
In the wake of the Florida recount, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which mandated higher standards for the voting equipment used in federal elections.
“The Help America Vote Act assumed that touch screen technology was going to be the future of voting,” says Jones, “and in the early 2000s, there was a big wave of adoption of touch screen voting machines, and then a big backlash.”
Even though states and municipalities spent millions of dollars upgrading their voting equipment, not all of the new touch screen voting machines were created equal, says Jones, and software glitches produced some glaring errors in voter tallies. And in the 2016 presidential election, electronic voting machines in 21 states were targeted by Russian hackers.
As a result, several states have scrapped their expensive touch screen voting machines and switched back to paper-based ballots.
The ‘Scantron’ of Voting
Soon after the first punch card voting machines hit the market in the 1960s, so did a competing voting technology called optical scanning machines. Jones says these voting machines were directly inspired by the fill-in-the-bubble scannable forms used to automatically grade standardized tests.
With fears over hacked voting machines and more states encouraging early voting by mail, optical scanning technology is now the most popular way to cast a vote in America. Fillable paper ballots can easily be mailed out to voters, reducing the need for polling place volunteers and greatly expanding the time frame for voting beyond election day.
Even better, optical scanning technology is cheap, Jones says, and there are no chads.
READ MORE: These US Elections Saw the Highest Voter Turnout Rates
Long-Term Gallup Poll Trends: A Portrait of American Public Opinion Through the Century
The Gallup Poll has been asking Americans questions for over 60 years, and while the topics of the polls have covered the entire range of news events and trends that have occurred since 1935, some basic questions have remained constant throughout this entire time period. This review looks back at some of the more enduring measures that provide a fascinating portrait of the way in which American public opinion has changed in some ways -- and stayed the same in many others.
The Gallup Poll does not extend back through the entire century that comes to a close on December 31, but does span about two-thirds of it. Gallup asked its first official question in September 1935 and has been asking Americans for their opinions about almost every conceivable issue, phase of life and news event since that time.
Some of the topics for Gallup Poll questions have come and gone. In the 1940s, Gallup interviewers were asking about wartime rations, in the 1950s the Korean War , in the 1960s civil rights riots, in the 1970s Watergate, in the 1980s and even in the 1990s such topics as the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and the O.J. Simpson trial, which occupied a great deal of Gallup Poll attention, have now faded in terms of their contemporary interest.
But other Gallup Poll topics have been more enduring parts of the American landscape and have survived intact over the years. The concerns and opinions of Americans on these issues are just as relevant and interesting today as they were when Gallup first began asking about them decades ago, and for that reason they have been continually updated throughout the years.
This special end-of-the-century review looks at a dozen of these enduring measures. None of these are intended to provide a complete understanding of public opinion in the specific area. For that, The Gallup Poll's long and rich archives should be consulted. Our hope is that the highlights presented here will spur our readers to explore them.
1. Presidential Job Approval
Do you approve or disapprove of the way (the president) is handling his job as president?
This question, described as "the most frequently asked question in the history of survey research," was first developed by Dr. Gallup during the Roosevelt presidency, starting in 1935, as a way to evaluate public support for the president between elections. As discussed in the definitive "Presidential Approval: A Sourcebook" by George C. Edwards and Alec M. Gallup:
Gallup's early efforts to develop some kind of presidential "popularity" rating to reveal how Americans felt about Franklin Delano Roosevelt were confined to questions concerning whether they would vote for him again rather than whether they liked him or the job he was doing. … By August of 1937, however, Gallup had abandoned voting intention questions in favor of questions more akin to the current approach.
Some of the earlier wordings included references to the president's job performance "in general," or "today." However, according to Edwards and Gallup, the current wording, used continuously by The Gallup Poll since its formulation and subsequently adopted by most other major polling organizations around the country, was settled on during the Truman administration in 1945.
The chart below summarizes presidential job approval ratings on the basis of annual averages for each president since Harry Truman. The ever-changing figures parallel major events in American social, economic and political life this century, as well as presidential triumphs and scandal, and make clear the public scrutiny faced by those who occupy the Oval Office. As varied as the line-graph pattern is, it masks the most dramatic individual job approval figures in Gallup's archives, including the lowest rating on record of 22% given to Harry Truman in February 1952, and the highest rating of 89% given to George Bush during the Gulf War in February 1991. Close to 1,000 individual ratings make up the summary presented here, and represent the largest and longest public opinion time-series anywhere in the world.
2. Willingness to Support a Woman for President
Gallup first asked the public about its willingness to vote for a woman for president in 1937, at the earliest stage of The Gallup Poll. At that point, only a third of the public said they would vote for a woman. (It may be well to remember how different the times were when Gallup first asked this question in 1937: it had been only 17 years since women were given the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.) Changes began to occur rapidly in these attitudes soon after the end of World War II, however. By 1949, the "yes" response had risen to 48%, and by 1955, a majority -- 52% -- said it would vote for a woman.
This bare majority percentage, however, stayed remarkably constant for the next 14 years, with only 53% saying they would vote for a woman as late as 1969. Many American attitudes shifted significantly during the time period of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, as the country was roiled by Vietnam, the maturing into adulthood of the baby boom generation, the hippie and other countercultural movements and Watergate. Women's consciousness also began to shift and by 1971, a significant change in this "woman for president" indicator took place. By 1971, two-thirds of the public said yes to the question. The percentage continued to climb, reaching 78% in 1984, the year in which a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, became the Democratic nominee for vice president.
In 1999, another woman, Elizabeth Dole, made a serious run at the Republican presidential nomination, as 92% of Americans said they would vote for a woman candidate. Still, it is worth noting that even today, 7% of Americans -- more men than women -- say they would not be willing to vote for a woman for president.
3. Willingness to Support a Black for President
Gallup's first asking of this question came in 1958, at which time only 38% of the public said "yes" -- that they would be willing to vote for a black for president. As was true for the "woman for president" question, the major shifts in the responses came in the 1960s and into the 1970s, coincident not only with the turmoil of Vietnam and the countercultural flowering of the hippie age, but also with an enormous amount of activity, protest and legislation on the civil rights front. In fact, between 1963 and 1965, as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the percentage of Americans saying they would be willing to vote for a black for president moved up 9 percentage points to a majority of 59% for the first time. By 1969, two-thirds of Americans said they would vote for a black, and the number has been climbing since then.
In the ten-year span between 1987 and 1997, the yes percentage jumped from 79% to 93%, and earlier this year it reached 95% -- essentially universal willingness to state to an interviewer that the race of a candidate for president would make no difference. There has yet to be an African American candidate for president who has advanced to be a serious contender for the nation's highest office -- although Jesse Jackson has been a serious contender for the Democratic nomination in some years. Also, as of December 1999, the black candidate Alan Keyes was still officially in the running for the Republican presidential nomination, and polls have shown over the past decade that retired General Colin Powell would be a very formidable presidential candidate for either party if he were to decide to run.
4. Biggest Threat to the Country: Big Business, Big Labor or Big Government
In the mid-1960s, one economic framework used to help explain economic forces in the country was that of countervailing power. This was the notion that big businesses and labor unions would struggle against each other, each group trying to protects its own interests, while the federal government would act as a balance of power, to ensure that neither of the other two participants became too strong and thus a threat to the country's economy. It was perhaps this framework that gave rise to a Gallup question that has been asked four times in the 1960s, three times each in the 1970s and 1980s, and twice in the 1990s: "Which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future: big business, big labor, or big government?"
The question may very well have taken on a different meaning over the years, as the theory of countervailing power has given way to more sophisticated economic frameworks that no longer ignore international commerce, and as labor unions have become less of an economic force in this country. The trends in the answers to the question show a substantial increase in the number of Americans who now say "big government" rather than "big labor" or "big business." And with the decline in labor union membership, "big labor" is seen as the biggest threat by less than one in ten Americans, a drop of more than twenty points from when the question was first asked three and a half decades ago.
5. Cigarette Smoking and Lung Cancer
The Gallup Poll first measured public attitudes about the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer in January 1954, asking Americans "What is your opinion -- do you think cigarette smoking is one of the causes of lung cancer, or not?"
At that time -- after medical studies that linked smoking with cancer had been publicized in the news, but before the United States surgeon general's warnings of the mid-1960s were issued -- only 41% of Americans answered in the affirmative. Close to one-third, 31%, said smoking did not cause cancer while the remaining 29% were unsure. Other Gallup polling of the time showed widespread awareness of reports that cigarette smoking "may be a cause of cancer of the lung," with 90% saying they had recently heard or read about this possibility. Seven in ten also viewed smoking as harmful, generally. A follow-up question asking Americans in what ways they believe smoking is harmful sheds interesting light on the seriousness of the public's health concerns about smoking in that era, and can be compared with a recent update on the measure.
The trend line below shows the gradual but steady increase in public acceptance of the link between smoking and cancer that occurred over the next 40 years, according to Gallup's direct question on the issue. The most dramatic short-term change in public attitudes on the cancer question occurred between 1960 and 1969, spanning the time during which the surgeon general issued his first public report on smoking (in 1964) and during which Congress required the first cigarette package warning labels. At the beginning of the decade only 50% believed smoking was a cause of cancer by 1969, that figure had grown to 70%. Since then, agreement that smoking causes lung cancer has increased by an average of one percentage point per year such agreement is now shared by more than nine in ten Americans.
6. Ideal Number of Children
According to United Nations statistics, the annual rate of world population growth peaked at about 2% in the early 1960s and has gradually slowed ever since. The latest U.N. population figures indicate that the world's population is now growing by just over 1.3%, or about 78 million people per year. The United Nations cites desired family size as one of the key factors in world population trends, and partially credits a decrease in the number of children desired by women for the slowing in population growth.
With a question that asks "What do you think is the ideal number of children for a family to have," Gallup has recorded dramatic changes in attitudes about family size in the United States over the last half century. When first measured by Gallup in 1936, two-thirds of Americans thought that three or more children were ideal. The average (mathematical mean) number of children preferred was 3.6. Those preferences held steady for the next three decades, through a poll conducted in 1967. Then, the next Gallup poll to ask the "ideal number of children" question, conducted in 1973, recorded a substantial change -- with preference for three or more children declining to 43% and the mean number preferred dropping to 2.8. By 1980, the figures had fallen further, to 32% favoring three or more children, and just 2.5 for the mean. U.S. opinion on this issue has been mostly stable at this level since 1980, although a significant upward trend was seen when the issue was last measured in 1997.
It is interesting to note that trends in U.S. preferences for family size are generally consistent with birth statistics over the same time period. From the end of World War II through 1967, the average number of children born to women in the United States was relatively high, ranging from 2.7 to 3.7. That fell to 1.9 by 1973 and was estimated at 2.1 for 1997.
7. Church Attendance
This is an enduring behavioral recall measure of religion that has undergone remarkably little change over the last 30 years. The high point for this measure of church attendance came in the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, when -- coincident with the huge number of baby-boom children coming of age across the country -- almost half of Americans said that they had gone to church "in the last seven days." This percentage fell back to roughly the 40% range by the early 1980s, however, and has stayed at almost precisely that point ever since.
In the broadest sense, the percentage of churchgoers today -- based on this measure -- is almost exactly what it was in 1939 when Gallup first asked the question to a nationwide sample. Despite the enormous changes that have roiled society through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, almost exactly the same numbers of Americans in survey after survey, year after year, during this period of time, have said that they attended church at some point during the previous seven days.
Interestingly, this measure has been one of the most widely analyzed of all Gallup Poll questions, and scholars throughout the years have looked into exactly what it is measuring. One team of sociologists, in fact, selected a specific county in Ohio, and spent months attempting to count cars in church parking lots and obtain other measures of "real" church attendance to see if they could match the number of warm bodies in pews with what the responses to the question in surveys administered in the same county would suggest (they couldn't). While the measure most probably is not a precise indicator of the exact number of people who attend church on specific weeks, the fact that it has remained so constant over the years is an important indicator of the stability of a broad attitudinal indicator of religiosity in the American population.
8. The Federal Income Tax
A government tax on income is a relatively recent form of taxation, although it was imposed sporadically in medieval Italian cities. The first major income tax in modern societies was a temporary one imposed in England at the end of the 18th century, for war revenue. The United States imposed its first income tax in 1864, to help fight the Civil War, but discontinued that tax eight years later. In 1894, a federal income tax was enacted into law, but was declared unconstitutional. This prompted Congress to pass the Sixteenth Amendment, eventually ratified by the states and taking effect in 1913, allowing the income tax to become a permanent part of the federal tax structure.
Shortly after World War II, Gallup asked Americans whether they considered "the amount of federal income tax you have to pay as too high, about right, or too low." In almost all of the years since then, a majority of Americans have opted to say "too high," with never more than a couple of percent saying "too low."
The two major exceptions to this pattern occurred during especially troubled times involving Berlin, the focal point of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Western world on one hand, and the Soviet Union and its satellites on the other. When the tax question was asked in March, 1949, the United States was in the midst of a massive airlift of supplies from Western countries to Berlin, because of the "blockade" imposed by East Germany forbidding any land travel from West Germany to the interior of East Germany, where Berlin was located. The fear that this action could lead to a new world war was widespread, and it is possible that this situation was the reason why a majority of Americans, for the only time in the half century when they were asked this question, said that the amount of federal taxes they were paying was "about right."
The only other time when a majority of Americans did not say federal taxes were too high was in the 1961-1962 period, again a period of great uncertainty about Berlin and the possibility of a new world war. During this period of the "Berlin Crisis," the Soviet Union resumed its testing of nuclear weapons, threatened to allow the East German government authority over East Berlin, and supported the construction of the Berlin Wall -- which later came to symbolize the "Iron Curtain" of separation between the communist and Western countries. As during the Berlin Blockade, this was a period of great fear about the possibility of a new world war, which may have led Americans to be more sanguine about the amount of taxes they were paying. At this time, Americans were about evenly divided between those who said taxes were too high, and those who said their taxes were about right.
9. Legality of Abortion
Gallup has polled extensively about the issue of abortion since it emerged as a national public opinion issue with the landmark, but controversial, 1973 Supreme CourtRoe vs. Wadedecision. The past quarter century of polling has consistently shown that the public holds a complex set of opinions about the issue: on the one hand, viewing abortion as immoral and favoring protection of the unborn in most specific circumstances on the other hand, favoring theRoe v. Waderuling and respecting the privacy arguments made by those seeking to preserve a woman's right to choose abortion.
Gallup's standard measure of public opinion about abortion -- the question asked most frequently and with consistent wording -- is summarized in the chart below. The question asks whether abortion should be "legal under any circumstances," "legal only under certain circumstances," or "illegal in all circumstances." More recently Gallup has asked a follow-up of people in the middle group to clarify their position, and has asked Americans to classify themselves as either "pro-life" or "pro-choice." On the basis of these questions, Americans look to be nearly evenly divided between those generally in favor of broad abortion rights, and those who are generally opposed to them.
In terms of the basic trend measure, some movement can be seen over time, particularly in the percentage favoring broad abortion rights. The most significant change in public attitudes occurred from the mid-1980s to mid-ྖs, when public support for the strong pro-choice position (abortion legal under any circumstances) increased from 21% to 33%. However, support for that position has subsequently declined (coincident with a new public debate over "partial-birth abortions"). The result is that public opinion on this measure of abortion attitudes looks remarkably similar today to when it was first recorded in 1975.
The even more remarkable thing to notice about the graph is the basic continuity in the majority position. Since the question was first asked in 1975, half or more of Americans have staked out the middle ground -- favoring abortion under only certain circumstances. Similarly, ardent anti-abortion Americans have consistently represented the minority viewpoint throughout this period, while ardent pro-choicers have been somewhere in the middle.
10. Approval of Labor Unions
The labor union movement began during the industrial revolution as a struggle against employers who exploited workers (including children) with long hours, low pay, and often-dangerous working conditions. Initially, efforts by labor unions to seek better working conditions were treated by the courts as acts of conspiracy punishable by law, and later as violations of antitrust laws. In 1916, Congress officially exempted labor unions from antitrust laws, and in 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, which established the right of workers to organize and required employers to accept collective bargaining.
A year later, Gallup first asked Americans whether they approved or disapproved of labor unions. As the graph below shows, approval has always exceeded disapproval by substantial margins, although there has been some variation -- from a high of about 75% approval in the mid-1950s to a low of 55% in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, despite the relatively low number of households in which someone belongs to a union -- 18% -- Americans continue to approve of labor unions by a substantial margin, 66% to 29%.
11. Use of Alcohol
In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Complete enforcement proved to be impossible, and 14 years later, adoption of the 21st Amendment repealed the failed experiment of prohibition.
Some idea of how difficult it was to enforce prohibition can be found in the accompanying graph, showing how many Americans "have occasion to use alcoholic beverages, such as liquor, wine or beer." When Americans were first asked that question in 1939, six years after the repeal of prohibition, almost six in ten (58%) said that they would occasionally imbibe, while 42% said they were "total abstainers."
Over the next six decades, the number of admitted drinkers has gone as low as 55%, but for the most part has remained at about 60% or higher, with peak numbers found in the 1970s -- from 68% to 71%. In the most recent Gallup poll, 64% of Americans indicate they occasionally drink, while 36% say they never drink.
12. Death Penalty
Americans' support for the death penalty has undergone significant change over the years, to some degree coincident with the death penalty's actual use across the country. In the early 1950s, support for the death penalty was quite high -- at 68% -- but it fell to its low point of 42% in 1966, which also marked the only point in Gallup's history of asking the question that opposition outweighed support. During this time, the number of executions in the country dropped to very low numbers compared to much higher numbers in the 1940s and 1950s, and serious legal challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty were raised. Support for the death penalty, nevertheless, soon began to rise, and even in 1972, when the Supreme Court essentially suspended the use of the death penalty, a majority -- 54% -- of Americans approved of its use. By 1976, other Supreme Court decisions reinstated the use of the death penalty by approving revised death penalty statutes in various states, and in 1977 the first execution in 10 years took place in Utah. By this point, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, well over 60% of Americans supported its use.
The high point in American support for the death penalty came in 1994, at 80%. Although support remains high, it may be waning slightly Gallup's most recent survey in 1999 showed that 71% supported its use in cases of murder. Critics through the years have argued that equal attention should be paid to questions that show that when specific alternatives to the death penalty -- such as guaranteed life in prison with no possibility of parole -- are stressed to respondents, support is lower. This is true, but Gallup polling indicates that even when these scenarios are laid out to respondents, a majority continues to say that it supports the death penalty's use.
This Is the Story Behind Your 'I Voted' Sticker
A s Americans go to the polls this Tuesday, they’ll likely also see which of their friends are doing the same, as their Facebook and Twitter feeds are overrun by “I Voted” sticker selfies. The patriotic decals can also snag citizens free food and drinks, a ride home and many other incentives that businesses offer to wearers.
The badge of pride has been a fixture at many polling places since…well, it’s not totally clear. Exactly who invented the sticker is a bit mysterious.
It seems likely that the decals are a product of the early 1980s. An Oct. 29, 1982, Miami Herald article may contain the earliest mention of such a sticker, in a discussion of how small businesses in Fort Lauderdale were offering discounts to customers wearing “I Voted” stickers. The Phoenix Realtors Association says it started distributing such stickers in Phoenix and Maricopa County a few years later, in 1985, and National Campaign Supply claims it started selling them in 1986.
Janet Boudreau, who used to run the election-supply company Intab, designed a version with an American flag blowing in the wind in 1987. She was shocked by how many people didn’t realize it was Election Day, and wanted to do something to help. “I wanted them to see people with an ‘I Voted’ sticker and think, ‘Oh, I should do that,'” she says. For Boudreau, now 57, the sticker was a product of coming of age during the s and s, during which time she realized just how much voting mattered. “In terms of civil rights and people protesting against the Vietnam War, we could see populism having a huge effect. Who you’d get in office to pass or kill legislation could mean life or death for some people.”
But does the sticker actually help?
Political scientists say it’s not that the sticker itself gets people out to vote, but that the sticker represents an attempt to bring back a sense of community that was once associated with voting&mdashand that feeling does matter.
As explained by Richard Bensel, professor of government at Cornell University and author of The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, the system of voting in the 19th century was very public, as eligible men would go to the polling place to collect ballots from party agents, and then voters hand the ticket of their choice to an election judge, who would deposit it himself into a voting box. Because some of the tickets were color coded, anyone present might get a chance to see who voted, and for whom. “An &lsquoI Voted&rsquo sticker wouldn&rsquot have meant as much,” Bensel says. “You were voting in public, so everyone who was relevant, who would care, would see you vote.”
And Election Day was a real occasion: Men might show they were old enough to vote by growing out their facial hair and getting all dressed up, according to Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian&rsquos National Museum of American History. Liquor would flow freely at the polling place, lending the balloting a raucous&mdashsometimes violent&mdashcelebratory air. As Philip A. Klinkner, professor of Government at Hamilton College, puts it, “it was the state fair and the Fourth of July and the Christmas Day all wrapped up into one.”
Since the introduction of the secret ballot in the late 19th century, voting has become a solitary, almost somber act.
That’s one reason why voter turnout rates sank in the 20th century, says Donald P. Green, professor of political science at Columbia University. “[Voter turnout] rebounded after World War II, sagged during the 1970s, and it has rebounded in the last four elections in part because both parties have gotten better at mobilizing voters,” he says, adding that “the 2000 election dramatized the importance of every vote.” (Green guesses the drama of 2000 may be why the “I Voted” sticker seems more visible today than it was in the past.)
And, as shown by a study Green co-authored, reviving the 19th-century attitude that Election Day is a community holiday can make a difference when it comes to turnout. The study examined 14 different cities and towns in which “Election Day festivals” were held&mdashfeaturing everything from Taiko drummers to clowns&mdashand found that, as he puts it, “if you can get people to the parties, you can get them to vote.” (That experiment is being conducted again for the 2016 election in over two dozen cities).
Over the years, some counties have stopped ordering “I Voted” stickers due to budget constraints&mdashthe Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters said it saved over $90,000 by not offering them in 2012&mdashand others are moving away from stickers to prevent citizens from plastering the public places with them. But, even if the stickers themselves fall out of favor, their lesson will stick around: seeing that other people are participating can be the nudge a citizen needs to get into the voting booth.
In fact, research has even shown that people may be more likely to act if they know someone else might notice. Economists at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Harvard University recently found that “telling people they’re going to be asked about voting will make them more likely to vote,” says Stefano DellaVigna, a professor of economics and business administration at Berkeley. Similarly, research by Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Fordham University, found that when voters are thanked for voting in a past election, they’re more likely to vote in a future election.
Panagopoulos proposes an even more effective get-out-the-vote method than the “I Voted” sticker: “People who get the sticker have already voted, so they’re motivated enough for it to have worked in the first place,” he says. “If we could find the people who didn&rsquot vote and give them a sticker saying ‘I Didn&rsquot Vote,’ that could cause a greater increase in turnout.”
How Americans Have Voted Through History - HISTORY
White Only: Jim Crow in America
By the late 1870s Reconstruction was coming to an end. In the name of healing the wounds between North and South, most white politicians abandoned the cause of protecting African Americans.
In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places.
Taking away the vote
Denying black men the right to vote through legal maneuvering and violence was a first step in taking away their civil rights. Beginning in the 1890s, southern states enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, elaborate registration systems, and eventually whites-only Democratic Party primaries to exclude black voters.
The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904.
Poll tax receipt
Jim Crow songbook
Insulting racial stereotypes were common in American society. They reinforced discriminatory customs and laws that oppressed Americans of many racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. The cigarette holder and early 20th-century advertising cards depict common stereotypes of African Americans, Chinese Americans, Jews, and Irish Americans.
Claims of 'voter fraud' have a long history in America. And they are false
Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, was supposed to be a whole lot poorer by now.
On 11 November, eight days after the presidential election and four days after the networks called the race for Joe Biden, the conservative talk radio host turned Republican politician launched a bounty hunt. Any tipsters who could provide evidence of voter fraud that led to a criminal conviction would receive at least $25,000, up to a grand total of $1m. The money was set to come from Patrick’s campaign, not his personal account. Still, the point remains: if voter fraud was rampant, as President Trump and leading Republicans have repeatedly claimed, Patrick’s million-dollar fund should have run dry long ago.
As it stands, Patrick’s campaign finances are in far better shape than his credibility. To date, it appears he has paid out a grand total of zero dollars and zero cents.
Patrick stands out for his willingness to put his donors’ money where his mouth was. But his million-dollar effort was just a small part of the largest voter-fraud hunt in American history. Never in American history have self-proclaimed fraud-fighters been given more attention, resources and time to prove their case – that a major election was stolen through what they’ve dubbed “illegal votes”.
Instead, they’ve done the opposite. The 2020 election, and Trump’s attempt to overturn it, will leave us with plenty of reasons to remain concerned about the health of our democracy. But the idea that our political process has been compromised by widespread fraud isn’t among them. It’s time to retire the voter-fraud myth for good.
Falsely claiming voter fraud is a tradition nearly as old as American democracy itself. Take, for example, early 19th-century New Jersey. Under the state’s original constitution, some women had the right to vote, and some politicians (namely those of the Federalist party) felt they would be more likely to win elections if those rights were taken away. But stripping eligible voters of their rights for purely partisan reasons was unseemly, even by 1800s standards, so ambitious lawmakers came up with an excuse. Men, they charged, were casting their ballots, slipping into petticoats, and then voting a second time. The only way to prevent this gender-bending fraud was to eliminate women’s voting rights entirely.
As a logical argument, the anti-fraud case for disenfranchising women made little sense. But logic was never the point. In 1807, aided by their theoretically principled excuse for their blatantly partisan power grab, the New Jersey legislature ended their state’s experiment in women’s suffrage.
As more Americans won voting rights on paper, and the two-party system became more entrenched in our political process, voter fraud remained a convenient excuse for disenfranchising eligible voters. In the 1830s, on the theory that cities couldn’t be trusted to hold honest elections, Pennsylvania passed a voter registration law that applied to the city of Philadelphia and nowhere else. “Although the proclaimed goal of the law was to reduce fraud,” writes Alexander Keyssar in The Right to Vote, “opponents insisted that its real intent was to reduce the participation of the poor, who were frequently not home when assessors came by.”
Not surprisingly, false claims of fraud also played an important role in propping up segregation. In 1959, Washington parish, Louisiana, “purged” its voter rolls. Local officials claimed they were merely remove illegally registered names from the rolls. In fact, they purged 85% of the parish’s African American voters. This proved too audacious even for the Jim Crow era, and a federal court overturned the parish’s purge. But in most cases, courts have given lawmakers the benefit of the doubt. So long as they can plausibly claim to be fighting fraud – or more accurately, so long as they can’t be proven not to be fighting fraud – legislators can pass bills restricting access to the ballot, even for eligible voters, and even if the voters affected are clearly more likely to belong to one party than the other.
In other words, when conservative pundit Dick Morris claimed that over a million people voted twice in the 2012 elections, when President Trump alleged that millions of undocumented immigrants cast ballots in 2016, or when Rudy Giuliani dropped his sweaty dud of a bombshell at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, they were taking part in a timeless American tradition. From a moral standpoint, falsely claiming fraud is despicable. But from a political standpoint, it’s historically been a win-win: in a best-case scenario you disenfranchise voters in an election that already occurred, and in a worse-case scenario you lay the groundwork for disenfranchising them next time.
Already, Republican politicians are once again using the fear of voter fraud – a fear that exists, to the extent it does, entirely because of baseless claims they generated – as a pretext to attack the voting rights of eligible American citizens. The Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw recently argued that the only way to restore confidence in our elections is to make voter registration far more difficult and outlaw mail-in voting for many if not most Americans. The Florida senator Rick Scott has gone even further. His “fraud-fighting” bill would throw out ballots if a county can’t tally them within 24 hours, even if those ballots are legally cast.
It’s hardly surprising that politicians like Crenshaw and Scott believe they can get away with turning false claims of voter fraud into the very real disenfranchisement of eligible voters. It’s happened many times before. But this time ought to be different. Egged on by the would-be authoritarian in the White House, election results have been challenged in at least six states. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed in an attempt to delay or overturn the certification of the final tallies. Hearings have been held. The attorney general, Bill Barr, in a frightening break with established Department of Justice procedure, authorized federal prosecutors to investigate credible fraud claims even if doing so would appear political.
The results? The Trump administration is now a 39-time loser in court. A parade of frustrated judges, many appointed by Trump himself, have written blistering opinions pointing out that the president and his allies have no basis for their claims. Even Trump’s own lawyers have admitted under questioning that they’re not alleging fraud because they have no evidence with which to do so. Inside the conservative echo chamber, the Republican party’s attacks on the integrity of our elections will sow doubt and distrust in our political process. But in the real world, the idea that marquee elections are being stolen via voter fraud has now been disproven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Which means that, barring real evidence to the contrary, it’s time for our institutions to stop taking partisan claims of voter fraud seriously. Reporters should treat allegations of a fraudulent election the way they treat birtherism or QAnon – as pure conspiracy theory. Courts should stop giving self-proclaimed fraud-fighters the benefit of the doubt, and instead demand that they substantiate their allegations before barring eligible Americans from the ballot box. The handful of Republican politicians who, to their lasting credit, condemned Trump’s attempts to manipulate the most recent election should be equally forceful about attempts to manipulate future ones.
This year, false claims of fraud weren’t enough to overturn an election. But next time we may not be so lucky. Trump is not the first American to embrace the voter-fraud myth for his political advantage, but if American democracy is to survive, he ought to be the last.
David Litt is a former Obama speechwriter and the author of Thanks, Obama and Democracy in One Book Or Less
Same-day voter registration
Same-day registration, which this report defines as including Election Day registration, improves the voter registration process by allowing registration to take place at the same time that voters are casting their ballots, removing barriers such as arbitrarily early registration deadlines. 80 Relatedly, SDR eliminates confusion around where to register to vote, as voters may register at the polling place or other designated locations that permit voting. Moreover, individuals who have moved can simply bring a bill or other documentation showing residency to the designated voting location in order to update their voter registration. In the 2016 election, nationwide, more than 1.2 million voter registrations took place on voting days. 81
Same-day voter registration has proven effective in increasing voter participation. 82 States implementing SDR have seen increases in voter participation of between 3 and 7 percent, with an average of 5 percent. 83 Furthermore, in states with SDR during the 2012 election, voter participation was, on average, more than 10 percent higher than in other states. 84 The three states with the highest voter participation in the 2014 midterms—Maine, Wisconsin, and Colorado—all allow SDR, while 6 of the 7 states with the highest voter participation in the 2012 elections allowed SDR. 85 Minnesota, which has led the country in voter participation for the last two presidential elections, has same-day registration, with more than 17 percent of voters having registered to vote through the SDR process during the 2012 elections. 86 A 2002 study by the Caltech/MIT Project found that, during the 2000 election, voter participation in states with SDR was 8 percent higher than in states without the policy. 87
Notably, same-day registration is effective at increasing voter registration for historically underrepresented groups. In the lead-up to the 2012 elections, nearly 250,000 North Carolinians—41 percent of whom were African American—registered to vote through the state’s then-SDR system. 88 Young people also benefit from same-day registration. In 2008, young people from states with SDR policies were, on average, 9 percent more likely to vote than those living in states that lacked the policy. 89
According to estimates, if implemented nationally, SDR could boost participation for young people—ages 18 to 25—by 12 percent as well as by 7.5 percent and 11 percent for African Americans and Latinos, respectively. 90
In addition to increasing participation, the majority of election officials in jurisdictions with SDR have found implementation costs to be minimal, and roughly half of respondents said that it reduced the burden of voter registration surges that occur before traditional registration deadlines. 91
All else being equal, if projections are based on the 5-percent average increase in voter turnout that was experienced by states with SDR, had all states that do not have SDR passed and implemented the policy, there likely could have been more than 4.8 million additional voters in the 2016 elections.
Same-day voter registration is a common-sense policy proven to increase voter participation and close participation gaps. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states and the District of Columbia currently offer SDR, including election day registration. 92 Two additional states—Maryland and North Carolina—permit SDR, but only during early voting periods. States enacting it must be sure that the policy includes Election Day registration, as opposed to only allowing SDR during early voting periods. To ensure that the policy is carried out effectively, voting locations must be adequately staffed to handle large numbers of same-day registrations, as the policy has proven popular in the states that use it.
Voting rights in the United States
Voting rights in the United States, specifically the enfranchisement and disenfranchisement of different groups, has been a moral and political issue throughout United States history.
Eligibility to vote in the United States is governed by the United States Constitution and by federal and state laws. Several constitutional amendments (the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-sixth specifically) require that voting rights of U.S. citizens cannot be abridged on account of race, color, previous condition of servitude, sex, or age (18 and older) the constitution as originally written did not establish any such rights during 1787–1870, except that if a state permitted a person to vote for the "most numerous branch" of its state legislature, it was required to permit that person to vote in elections for members of the United States House of Representatives.  In the absence of a specific federal law or constitutional provision, each state is given considerable discretion to establish qualifications for suffrage and candidacy within its own respective jurisdiction in addition, states and lower level jurisdictions establish election systems, such as at-large or single member district elections for county councils or school boards. Beyond qualifications for suffrage, rules and regulations concerning voting (such as the poll tax) have been contested since the advent of Jim Crow laws and related provisions that indirectly disenfranchised racial minorities.
A historic turning point was the 1964 Supreme Court case Reynolds v. Sims that ruled both houses of all state legislatures had to be based on electoral districts that were approximately equal in population size, under the "one man, one vote" principle.    The Warren Court's decisions on two previous landmark cases—Baker v. Carr (1962) and Wesberry v. Sanders (1964)—also played a fundamental role in establishing the nationwide "one man, one vote" electoral system.   Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Twenty-fourth Amendment, and related laws, voting rights have been legally considered an issue related to election systems. In 1972, the Burger Court ruled that state legislatures had to redistrict every ten years based on census results at that point, many had not redistricted for decades, often leading to a rural bias.
In other cases, [ which? ] particularly for county or municipal elections, at-large voting has been repeatedly challenged when found to dilute the voting power of significant minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act. In the early 20th century, numerous cities established small commission forms of government in the belief that "better government" could result from the suppression of ward politics. Commissioners were elected by the majority of voters, excluding candidates who could not afford large campaigns or who appealed to a minority. Generally the solution to such violations has been to adopt single-member districts (SMDs), but alternative election systems, such as limited voting or cumulative voting, have also been used since the late 20th century to correct for dilution of voting power and enable minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
The District of Columbia and five major territories of the United States have one non-voting member each (in the United States House of Representatives) and no representation in the United States Senate. People in the U.S. territories cannot vote for president of the United States.  People in the District of Columbia can vote for the president because of the Twenty-third Amendment.
Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.
By Nikole Hannah-Jones AUG. 14, 2019
My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was perennially chipping the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door, existed in a perpetual state of disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. Our corner lot, which had been redlined by the federal government, was along the river that divided the black side from the white side of our Iowa town. At the edge of our lawn, high on an aluminum pole, soared the flag, which my dad would replace as soon as it showed the slightest tatter.
My dad was born into a family of sharecroppers on a white plantation in Greenwood, Miss., where black people bent over cotton from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night, just as their enslaved ancestors had done not long before. The Mississippi of my dad’s youth was an apartheid state that subjugated its near-majority black population through breathtaking acts of violence. White residents in Mississippi lynched more black people than those in any other state in the country, and the white people in my dad’s home county lynched more black residents than those in any other county in Mississippi, often for such 𠇌rimes” as entering a room occupied by white women, bumping into a white girl or trying to start a sharecroppers union. My dad’s mother, like all the black people in Greenwood, could not vote, use the public library or find work other than toiling in the cotton fields or toiling in white people’s houses. So in the 1940s, she packed up her few belongings and her three small children and joined the flood of black Southerners fleeing North. She got off the Illinois Central Railroad in Waterloo, Iowa, only to have her hopes of the mythical Promised Land shattered when she learned that Jim Crow did not end at the Mason-Dixon line.
Grandmama, as we called her, found a house in a segregated black neighborhood on the city’s east side and then found the work that was considered black women’s work no matter where black women lived — cleaning white people’s houses. Dad, too, struggled to find promise in this land. In 1962, at age 17, he signed up for the Army. Like many young men, he joined in hopes of escaping poverty. But he went into the military for another reason as well, a reason common to black men: Dad hoped that if he served his country, his country might finally treat him as an American.
The Army did not end up being his way out. He was passed over for opportunities, his ambition stunted. He would be discharged under murky circumstances and then labor in a series of service jobs for the rest of his life. Like all the black men and women in my family, he believed in hard work, but like all the black men and women in my family, no matter how hard he worked, he never got ahead.
So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner? I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me.
I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation. It seemed that the closest thing black Americans could have to cultural pride was to be found in our vague connection to Africa, a place we had never been. That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination.
Like most young people, I thought I understood so much, when in fact I understood so little. My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.
In August 1619, just 12 years after the English settled Jamestown, Va., one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock and some 157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country, the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates. The pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola. Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of American slavery. They were among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.
Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. Those individuals and their descendants transformed the lands to which they𠆝 been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. Through backbreaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, accounting for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island “slave trader.” Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. It was the relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of their bodies and the products of their labor that made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world.
But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that 𠇊ll men are created equal” and 𠇎ndowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.
The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man who himself was not free. Crispus Attucks was a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century. In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.
My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true 𠇏ounding fathers.” And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.
In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson sat at his portable writing desk in a rented room in Philadelphia and penned these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the last 243 years, this fierce assertion of the fundamental and natural rights of humankind to freedom and self-governance has defined our global reputation as a land of liberty. As Jefferson composed his inspiring words, however, a teenage boy who would enjoy none of those rights and liberties waited nearby to serve at his master’s beck and call. His name was Robert Hemings, and he was the half brother of Jefferson’s wife, born to Martha Jefferson’s father and a woman he owned. It was common for white enslavers to keep their half-black children in slavery. Jefferson had chosen Hemings, from among about 130 enslaved people that worked on the forced-labor camp he called Monticello, to accompany him to Philadelphia and ensure his every comfort as he drafted the text making the case for a new democratic republic based on the individual rights of men.
At the time, one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies struggled under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before. Chattel slavery was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently. Jefferson’s fellow white colonists knew that black people were human beings, but they created a network of laws and customs, astounding for both their precision and cruelty, that ensured that enslaved people would never be treated as such. As the abolitionist William Goodell wrote in 1853, “If any thing founded on falsehood might be called a science, we might add the system of American slavery to the list of the strict sciences.”
Enslaved people could not legally marry. They were barred from learning to read and restricted from meeting privately in groups. They had no claim to their own children, who could be bought, sold and traded away from them on auction blocks alongside furniture and cattle or behind storefronts that advertised “Negroes for Sale.” Enslavers and the courts did not honor kinship ties to mothers, siblings, cousins. In most courts, they had no legal standing. Enslavers could rape or murder their property without legal consequence. Enslaved people could own nothing, will nothing and inherit nothing. They were legally tortured, including by those working for Jefferson himself. They could be worked to death, and often were, in order to produce the highest profits for the white people who owned them.
Yet in making the argument against Britain’s tyranny, one of the colonists’ favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves — to Britain. For this duplicity, they faced burning criticism both at home and abroad. As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and Tory opposed to American independence, quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.
Jefferson and the other founders were keenly aware of this hypocrisy. And so in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he tried to argue that it wasn’t the colonists’ fault. Instead, he blamed the king of England for forcing the institution of slavery on the unwilling colonists and called the trafficking in human beings a crime. Yet neither Jefferson nor most of the founders intended to abolish slavery, and in the end, they struck the passage.
There is no mention of slavery in the final Declaration of Independence. Similarly, 11 years later, when it came time to draft the Constitution, the framers carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery without ever using the word. In the texts in which they were making the case for freedom to the world, they did not want to explicitly enshrine their hypocrisy, so they sought to hide it. The Constitution contains 84 clauses. Six deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement, as the historian David Waldstreicher has written, and five more hold implications for slavery. The Constitution protected the “property” of those who enslaved black people, prohibited the federal government from intervening to end the importation of enslaved Africans for a term of 20 years, allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved and forced states that had outlawed slavery to turn over enslaved people who had run away seeking refuge. Like many others, the writer and abolitionist Samuel Bryan called out the deceit, saying of the Constitution, “The words are dark and ambiguous such as no plain man of common sense would have used, [and] are evidently chosen to conceal from Europe, that in this enlightened country, the practice of slavery has its advocates among men in the highest stations.”
With independence, the founding fathers could no longer blame slavery on Britain. The sin became this nation’s own, and so, too, the need to cleanse it. The shameful paradox of continuing chattel slavery in a nation founded on individual freedom, scholars today assert, led to a hardening of the racial caste system. This ideology, reinforced not just by laws but by racist science and literature, maintained that black people were subhuman, a belief that allowed white Americans to live with their betrayal. By the early 1800s, according to the legal historians Leland B. Ware, Robert J. Cottrol and Raymond T. Diamond, white Americans, whether they engaged in slavery or not, “had a considerable psychological as well as economic investment in the doctrine of black inferiority.” While liberty was the inalienable right of the people who would be considered white, enslavement and subjugation became the natural station of people who had any discernible drop of 𠇋lack” blood.
The Supreme Court enshrined this thinking in the law in its 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruling that black people, whether enslaved or free, came from a “slave” race. This made them inferior to white people and, therefore, incompatible with American democracy. Democracy was for citizens, and the “Negro race,” the court ruled, was 𠇊 separate class of persons,” which the founders had “not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government” and had “no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” This belief, that black people were not merely enslaved but were a slave race, became the root of the endemic racism that we still cannot purge from this nation to this day. If black people could not ever be citizens, if they were a caste apart from all other humans, then they did not require the rights bestowed by the Constitution, and the “we” in the “We the People” was not a lie.
On Aug. 14, 1862, a mere five years after the nation’s highest courts declared that no black person could be an American citizen, President Abraham Lincoln called a group of five esteemed free black men to the White House for a meeting. It was one of the few times that black people had ever been invited to the White House as guests. The Civil War had been raging for more than a year, and black abolitionists, who had been increasingly pressuring Lincoln to end slavery, must have felt a sense of great anticipation and pride.
The war was not going well for Lincoln. Britain was contemplating whether to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf, and Lincoln, unable to draw enough new white volunteers for the war, was forced to reconsider his opposition to allowing black Americans to fight for their own liberation. The president was weighing a proclamation that threatened to emancipate all enslaved people in the states that had seceded from the Union if the states did not end the rebellion. The proclamation would also allow the formerly enslaved to join the Union army and fight against their former “masters.” But Lincoln worried about what the consequences of this radical step would be. Like many white Americans, he opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals, but he also opposed black equality. He believed that free black people were a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. 𠇏ree them, and make them politically and socially our equals?” he had said four years earlier. “My own feelings will not admit of this and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”
That August day, as the men arrived at the White House, they were greeted by the towering Lincoln and a man named James Mitchell, who eight days before had been given the title of a newly created position called the commissioner of emigration. This was to be his first assignment. After exchanging a few niceties, Lincoln got right to it. He informed his guests that he had gotten Congress to appropriate funds to ship black people, once freed, to another country.
“Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration,” Lincoln told them. “You and we are different races. . Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side.”
You can imagine the heavy silence in that room, as the weight of what the president said momentarily stole the breath of these five black men. It was 243 years to the month since the first of their ancestors had arrived on these shores, before Lincoln’s family, long before most of the white people insisting that this was not their country. The Union had not entered the war to end slavery but to keep the South from splitting off, yet black men had signed up to fight. Enslaved people were fleeing their forced-labor camps, which we like to call plantations, trying to join the effort, serving as spies, sabotaging confederates, taking up arms for his cause as well as their own. And now Lincoln was blaming them for the war. 𠇊lthough many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other . without the institution of slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence,” the president told them. “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”
As Lincoln closed the remarks, Edward Thomas, the delegation’s chairman, informed the president, perhaps curtly, that they would consult on his proposition. “Take your full time,” Lincoln said. “No hurry at all.”
Nearly three years after that White House meeting, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. By summer, the Civil War was over, and four million black Americans were suddenly free. Contrary to Lincoln’s view, most were not inclined to leave, agreeing with the sentiment of a resolution against black colonization put forward at a convention of black leaders in New York some decades before: “This is our home, and this our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers. . Here we were born, and here we will die.”
That the formerly enslaved did not take up Lincoln’s offer to abandon these lands is an astounding testament to their belief in this nation’s founding ideals. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, w men ever worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.” Black Americans had long called for universal equality and believed, as the abolitionist Martin Delany said, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” Liberated by war, then, they did not seek vengeance on their oppressors as Lincoln and so many other white Americans feared. They did the opposite. During this nation’s brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, formerly enslaved people zealously engaged with the democratic process. With federal troops tempering widespread white violence, black Southerners started branches of the Equal Rights League — one of the nation’s first human rights organizations — to fight discrimination and organize voters they headed in droves to the polls, where they placed other formerly enslaved people into seats that their enslavers had once held. The South, for the first time in the history of this country, began to resemble a democracy, with black Americans elected to local, state and federal offices. Some 16 black men served in Congress — including Hiram Revels of Mississippi, who became the first black man elected to the Senate. (Demonstrating just how brief this period would be, Revels, along with Blanche Bruce, would go from being the first black man elected to the last for nearly a hundred years, until Edward Brooke of Massachusetts took office in 1967.) More than 600 black men served in Southern state legislatures and hundreds more in local positions.
These black officials joined with white Republicans, some of whom came down from the North, to write the most egalitarian state constitutions the South had ever seen. They helped pass more equitable tax legislation and laws that prohibited discrimination in public transportation, accommodation and housing. Perhaps their biggest achievement was the establishment of that most democratic of American institutions: the public school. Public education effectively did not exist in the South before Reconstruction. The white elite sent their children to private schools, while poor white children went without an education. But newly freed black people, who had been prohibited from learning to read and write during slavery, were desperate for an education. So black legislators successfully pushed for a universal, state-funded system of schools — not just for their own children but for white children, too. Black legislators also helped pass the first compulsory education laws in the region. Southern children, black and white, were now required to attend schools like their Northern counterparts. Just five years into Reconstruction, every Southern state had enshrined the right to a public education for all children into its constitution. In some states, like Louisiana and South Carolina, small numbers of black and white children, briefly, attended schools together.
Led by black activists and a Republican Party pushed left by the blatant recalcitrance of white Southerners, the years directly after slavery saw the greatest expansion of human and civil rights this nation would ever see. In 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, making the United States one of the last nations in the Americas to outlaw slavery. The following year, black Americans, exerting their new political power, pushed white legislators to pass the Civil Rights Act, the nation’s first such law and one of the most expansive pieces of civil rights legislation Congress has ever passed. It codified black American citizenship for the first time, prohibited housing discrimination and gave all Americans the right to buy and inherit property, make and enforce contracts and seek redress from courts. In 1868, Congress ratified the 14th Amendment, ensuring citizenship to any person born in the United States. Today, thanks to this amendment, every child born here to a European, Asian, African, Latin American or Middle Eastern immigrant gains automatic citizenship. The 14th Amendment also, for the first time, constitutionally guaranteed equal protection under the law. Ever since, nearly all other marginalized groups have used the 14th Amendment in their fights for equality (including the recent successful arguments before the Supreme Court on behalf of same-sex marriage). Finally, in 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the most critical aspect of democracy and citizenship — the right to vote — to all men regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
For this fleeting moment known as Reconstruction, the majority in Congress seemed to embrace the idea that out of the ashes of the Civil War, we could create the multiracial democracy that black Americans envisioned even if our founding fathers did not.
Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity. The many gains of Reconstruction were met with fierce white resistance throughout the South, including unthinkable violence against the formerly enslaved, wide-scale voter suppression, electoral fraud and even, in some extreme cases, the overthrow of democratically elected biracial governments. Faced with this unrest, the federal government decided that black people were the cause of the problem and that for unity’s sake, it would leave the white South to its own devices. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes, in order to secure a compromise with Southern Democrats that would grant him the presidency in a contested election, agreed to pull federal troops from the South. With the troops gone, white Southerners quickly went about eradicating the gains of Reconstruction. The systemic white suppression of black life was so severe that this period between the 1880s and the 1920 and s became known as the Great Nadir, or the second slavery. Democracy would not return to the South for nearly a century.
White Southerners of all economic classes, on the other hand, thanks in significant part to the progressive policies and laws black people had championed, experienced substantial improvement in their lives even as they forced black people back into a quasi slavery. As Waters McIntosh, who had been enslaved in South Carolina, lamented, “It was the poor white man who was freed by the war, not the Negroes.”
Georgia pines flew past the windows of the Greyhound bus carrying Isaac Woodard home to Winnsboro, S.C. After serving four years in the Army in World War II, where Woodard had earned a battle star, he was given an honorable discharge earlier that day at Camp Gordon and was headed home to meet his wife. When the bus stopped at a small drugstore an hour outside Atlanta, Woodard got into a brief argument with the white driver after asking if he could use the restroom. About half an hour later, the driver stopped again and told Woodard to get off the bus. Crisp in his uniform, Woodard stepped from the stairs and saw the police waiting for him. Before he could speak, one of the officers struck him in his head with a billy club, beating him so badly that he fell unconscious. The blows to Woodard’s head were so severe that when he woke in a jail cell the next day, he could not see. The beating occurred just 4½ hours after his military discharge. At 26, Woodard would never see again.
There was nothing unusual about Woodard’s horrific maiming. It was part of a wave of systemic violence deployed against black Americans after Reconstruction, in both the North and the South. As the egalitarian spirit of post-Civil War America evaporated under the desire for national reunification, black Americans, simply by existing, served as a problematic reminder of this nation’s failings. White America dealt with this inconvenience by constructing a savagely enforced system of racial apartheid that excluded black people almost entirely from mainstream American life — a system so grotesque that Nazi Germany would later take inspiration from it for its own racist policies.
Despite the guarantees of equality in the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court’s landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 declared that the racial segregation of black Americans was constitutional. With the blessing of the nation’s highest court and no federal will to vindicate black rights, starting in the late 1800s, Southern states passed a series of laws and codes meant to make slavery’s racial caste system permanent by denying black people political power, social equality and basic dignity. They passed literacy tests to keep black people from voting and created all-white primaries for elections. Black people were prohibited from serving on juries or testifying in court against a white person. South Carolina prohibited white and black textile workers from using the same doors. Oklahoma forced phone companies to segregate phone booths. Memphis had separate parking spaces for black and white drivers. Baltimore passed an ordinance outlawing black people from moving onto a block more than half white and white people from moving onto a block more than half black. Georgia made it illegal for black and white people to be buried next to one another in the same cemetery. Alabama barred black people from using public libraries that their own tax dollars were paying for. Black people were expected to jump off the sidewalk to let white people pass and call all white people by an honorific, though they received none no matter how old they were. In the North, white politicians implemented policies that segregated black people into slum neighborhoods and into inferior all-black schools, operated whites-only public pools and held white and 𠇌olored” days at the country fair, and white businesses regularly denied black people service, placing “Whites Only” signs in their windows. States like California joined Southern states in barring black people from marrying white people, while local school boards in Illinois and New Jersey mandated segregated schools for black and white children.
This caste system was maintained through wanton racial terrorism. And black veterans like Woodard, especially those with the audacity to wear their uniform, had since the Civil War been the target of a particular violence. This intensified during the two world wars because white people understood that once black men had gone abroad and experienced life outside the suffocating racial oppression of America, they were unlikely to quietly return to their subjugation at home. As Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi said on the Senate floor during World War I, black servicemen returning to the South would “inevitably lead to disaster.” Giving a black man “military airs” and sending him to defend the flag would bring him “to the conclusion that his political rights must be respected.”
Many white Americans saw black men in the uniforms of America’s armed services not as patriotic but as exhibiting a dangerous pride. Hundreds of black veterans were beaten, maimed, shot and lynched. We like to call those who lived during World War II the Greatest Generation, but that allows us to ignore the fact that many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens. During the height of racial terror in this country, black Americans were not merely killed but castrated, burned alive and dismembered with their body parts displayed in storefronts. This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin. To answer the question of how they could prize liberty abroad while simultaneously denying liberty to an entire race back home, white Americans resorted to the same racist ideology that Jefferson and the framers had used at the nation’s founding.
This ideology — that black people belonged to an inferior, subhuman race — did not simply disappear once slavery ended. If the formerly enslaved and their descendants became educated, if we thrived in the jobs white people did, if we excelled in the sciences and arts, then the entire justification for how this nation allowed slavery would collapse. Free black people posed a danger to the country’s idea of itself as exceptional we held up the mirror in which the nation preferred not to peer. And so the inhumanity visited on black people by every generation of white America justified the inhumanity of the past.
Just as white Americans feared, World War II ignited what became black Americans’ second sustained effort to make democracy real. As the editorial board of the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier wrote, “We wage a two-pronged attack against our enslavers at home and those abroad who will enslave us.” Woodard’s blinding is largely seen as one of the catalysts for the decades-long rebellion we have come to call the civil rights movement. But it is useful to pause and remember that this was the second mass movement for black civil rights, the first being Reconstruction. As the centennial of slavery’s end neared, black people were still seeking the rights they had fought for and won after the Civil War: the right to be treated equally by public institutions, which was guaranteed in 1866 with the Civil Rights Act the right to be treated as full citizens before the law, which was guaranteed in 1868 by the 14th Amendment and the right to vote, which was guaranteed in 1870 by the 15th Amendment. In response to black demands for these rights, white Americans strung them from trees, beat them and dumped their bodies in muddy rivers, assassinated them in their front yards, firebombed them on buses, mauled them with dogs, peeled back their skin with fire hoses and murdered their children with explosives set off inside a church.
For the most part, black Americans fought back alone. Yet we never fought only for ourselves. The bloody freedom struggles of the civil rights movement laid the foundation for every other modern rights struggle. This nation’s white founders set up a decidedly undemocratic Constitution that excluded women, Native Americans and black people, and did not provide the vote or equality for most Americans. But the laws born out of black resistance guarantee the franchise for all and ban discrimination based not just on race but on gender, nationality, religion and ability. It was the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which upended the racist immigration quota system intended to keep this country white. Because of black Americans, black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States and live in a country in which legal discrimination is no longer allowed. It is a truly American irony that some Asian-Americans, among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil rights struggle, are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.
No one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it. And to this day, black Americans, more than any other group, embrace the democratic ideals of a common good. We are the most likely to support programs like universal health care and a higher minimum wage, and to oppose programs that harm the most vulnerable. For instance, black Americans suffer the most from violent crime, yet we are the most opposed to capital punishment. Our unemployment rate is nearly twice that of white Americans, yet we are still the most likely of all groups to say this nation should take in refugees.
The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance. Our founding fathers may not have actually believed in the ideals they espoused, but black people did. As one scholar, Joe R. Feagin, put it, 𠇎nslaved African-Americans have been among the foremost freedom-fighters this country has produced.” For generations, we have believed in this country with a faith it did not deserve. Black people have seen the worst of America, yet, somehow, we still believe in its best.
They say our people were born on the water.
When it occurred, no one can say for certain. Perhaps it was in the second week, or the third, but surely by the fourth, when they had not seen their land or any land for so many days that they lost count. It was after fear had turned to despair, and despair to resignation, and resignation to an abiding understanding. The teal eternity of the Atlantic Ocean had severed them so completely from what had once been their home that it was as if nothing had ever existed before, as if everything and everyone they cherished had simply vanished from the earth. They were no longer Mbundu or Akan or Fulani. These men and women from many different nations, all shackled together in the suffocating hull of the ship, they were one people now.
Just a few months earlier, they had families, and farms, and lives and dreams. They were free. They had names, of course, but their enslavers did not bother to record them. They had been made black by those people who believed that they were white, and where they were heading, black equaled “slave,” and slavery in America required turning human beings into property by stripping them of every element that made them individuals. This process was called seasoning, in which people stolen from western and central Africa were forced, often through torture, to stop speaking their native tongues and practicing their native religions.
But as the sociologist Glenn Bracey wrote, “Out of the ashes of white denigration, we gave birth to ourselves.” For as much as white people tried to pretend, black people were not chattel. And so the process of seasoning, instead of erasing identity, served an opposite purpose: In the void, we forged a new culture all our own.
Today, our very manner of speaking recalls the Creole languages that enslaved people innovated in order to communicate both with Africans speaking various dialects and the English-speaking people who enslaved them. Our style of dress, the extra flair, stems back to the desires of enslaved people — shorn of all individuality — to exert their own identity. Enslaved people would wear their hat in a jaunty manner or knot their head scarves intricately. Today’s avant-garde nature of black hairstyles and fashion displays a vibrant reflection of enslaved people’s determination to feel fully human through self-expression. The improvisational quality of black art and music comes from a culture that because of constant disruption could not cling to convention. Black naming practices, so often impugned by mainstream society, are themselves an act of resistance. Our last names belong to the white people who once owned us. That is why the insistence of many black Americans, particularly those most marginalized, to give our children names that we create, that are neither European nor from Africa, a place we have never been, is an act of self-determination. When the world listens to quintessential American music, it is our voice they hear. The sorrow songs we sang in the fields to soothe our physical pain and find hope in a freedom we did not expect to know until we died became American gospel. Amid the devastating violence and poverty of the Mississippi Delta, we birthed jazz and blues. And it was in the deeply impoverished and segregated neighborhoods where white Americans forced the descendants of the enslaved to live that teenagers too poor to buy instruments used old records to create a new music known as hip-hop.
Our speech and fashion and the drum of our music echoes Africa but is not African. Out of our unique isolation, both from our native cultures and from white America, we forged this nation’s most significant original culture. In turn, “mainstream” society has coveted our style, our slang and our song, seeking to appropriate the one truly American culture as its own. As Langston Hughes wrote in 1926, “They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed —/I, too, am America.”
For centuries, white Americans have been trying to solve the “Negro problem.” They have dedicated thousands of pages to this endeavor. It is common, still, to point to rates of black poverty, out-of-wedlock births, crime and college attendance, as if these conditions in a country built on a racial caste system are not utterly predictable. But crucially, you cannot view those statistics while ignoring another: that black people were enslaved here longer than we have been free.
At 43, I am part of the first generation of black Americans in the history of the United States to be born into a society in which black people had full rights of citizenship. Black people suffered under slavery for 250 years we have been legally 𠇏ree” for just 50. Yet in that briefest of spans, despite continuing to face rampant discrimination, and despite there never having been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of racial apartheid that followed, black Americans have made astounding progress, not only for ourselves but also for all Americans.
What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?
When I was a child — I must have been in fifth or sixth grade — a teacher gave our class an assignment intended to celebrate the diversity of the great American melting pot. She instructed each of us to write a short report on our ancestral land and then draw that nation’s flag. As she turned to write the assignment on the board, the other black girl in class locked eyes with me. Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country, and even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no rican” flag. It was hard enough being one of two black kids in the class, and this assignment would just be another reminder of the distance between the white kids and us. In the end, I walked over to the globe near my teacher’s desk, picked a random African country and claimed it as my own.
I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.
We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
Correction August 15, 2019
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was approved on July 4, 1776, not signed by Congress on that date. The article also misspelled the surname of a Revolutionary War-era writer. He was Samuel Bryan, not Byron.
Editors’ Note March 11, 2020
A passage has been adjusted to make clear that a desire to protect slavery was among the motivations of some of the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War, not among the motivations of all of them. Read more.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for the magazine. A 2017 MacArthur fellow, she has won a National Magazine Award, a Peabody Award and a George Polk Award. Adam Pendleton is an artist known for conceptually rigorous and formally inventive paintings, collages, videos and installations that address history and contemporary culture.
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was approved on July 4, 1776, not signed by Congress on that date. The article also misspelled the surname of a Revolutionary War-era writer. He was Samuel Bryan, not Byron.
A passage has been adjusted to make clear that a desire to protect slavery was among the motivations of some of the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War, not among the motivations of all of them. Read more.
Lever voting machine
As the Australian ballots were starting to be used, US inventors were dreaming up mechanical voting methods.
The voting machine had a curtain or door to give the voter privacy — you walked in, pressed buttons to select your choices, then pulled a lever. It registered your selection, opened the curtain, and reset things for the next voter.
"In terms of 19th-century technology they were about as complicated as machines ever got," Dr Jones says.
"What happened is they took the authority for the honesty of the election away from the local polling place officials to a significant extent and put it in the hands of the technicians in the county voting machine office."
Harvard University professor Stephen Ansolabehere says many Americans preferred them to paper ballots.
"A big 600-pound or 900-pound voting machine just felt secure," he says.
New York State didn't give up its lever machines until 2010 .
How the U.S. Ended Up With Today's Paper Ballots
W e send emails instead of hand-written letters, we buy Kindles instead of books, we use iPads instead of pen and paper&mdashand yet, voting is still mostly left to good old-fashioned paper.
Voting technology has essentially remained at a standstill for decades. Still, some things have stayed the same even longer: the same concerns for security and secrecy that have kept paper dominant were also the driving forces behind voting policy in the early years of the United States.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, votes were cast not by ballot, but by voice. Before the Revolution, voting took place at local carnivals, historian and writer Gil Troy tells TIME in an email. There, people&mdashwho may or may not have been drunk at the time, considering the setting&mdashwould call out their votes to be counted. But given how public this method of elections was (and the varying states of sobriety of voters present), voting was very easily corruptible.
Yet voting remained quite public, Troy says, until the 1800s, as voters would sign their names under one candidate&rsquos name or another&rsquos on a public ballot. This method had the advantage of being easy to count and hard to falsify, but the system was better suited to smaller elections. As the size of American government grew and parties became more established, printed ballots became common. Each party would distribute multi-page ballots with the names of the officials running for the various offices that were up for election. Voters would take the ballot from the party they wanted they wanted and drop it in the ballot box to be counted.
During the 19th century, however, American politics grew increasingly divisive&mdashand the secrecy of one&rsquos vote became more and more important. After the Civil War, the term &ldquovest-pocket&rdquo voting emerged to refer to people who kept their ballots in their pockets rather than displaying them publicly on the way to a polling place. Troy calls this an intermediate phase between public and private voting, when privacy was up to the individual&mdashand, as he notes (with credit to Michael McGerr&rsquos The Decline of Popular Politics), some liberal reformers at the time believed it was manlier to display one&rsquos preferences proudly.
By 1892, voting in secret with written ballots was the rage. At this point in time, it was generally agreed that privacy of voting important to the democratic process.
In the 1900s, advances in voting rights came faster than any specific voting technology. In 1920&mdashthe period in which lever machines were popular for casting ballots&mdashwomen&rsquos right to vote was recognized. And, 45 years later in 1965, a few years after punch-card technology was adapted for voting, president Lyndon B. Johnson enacted The Voting Rights Act, which removed many voting restrictions for people of color. Another 10 years later in 1975, president Gerald Ford signed an extension to the Voting Rights Act, which required bi-lingual assistance for non-English speaking citizens, particularly immigrants from Latin America.
Throughout those decades, different versions of the paper ballot remained at the heart of the voting process.
But that doesn&rsquot mean paper has never failed. The ultimate case against voting with paper is the hanging chad fiasco of 2000, when former president George W. Bush ran against former vice president Al Gore. A recount of Florida&rsquos hole-punched votes lasted several days and caused a massive controversy over whether or not ballots to which small pieces of paper (chads) were still attached should be counted as valid votes. It was a disaster that no state wanted to see repeated.
In the wake of that election, voting technology varies widely across the 50 states. Most states use a combination of electronic and paper technology. Only five states (Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina) have paper-free voting and some states (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) send all constituents a paper ballot in the mail. Even more states use a combination of electronic and paper at polling places.
Given how much technology has advanced in recent years, it&rsquos fair to wonder why we continue to vote with paper. However, there are good reasons why the U.S. is hanging on to paper ballots.
Tom Hicks, Chairman of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the group responsible for helping states meet standards set out in the Help America Vote Act of 2002, tells TIME that the primary reasons that many states continue to use paper ballots are security and voter preference.
The only real case study involving purely Internet-based voting is Estonia, where independent studies have revealed significant security concerns. A report published in 2014 found that Estonia&rsquos e-voting technology is vulnerable to myriad cyber-attacks, and that malware could easily rig elections. &ldquoThe Internet was not built for security,&rdquo says Pamela Smith of the voting-accuracy advocacy group Verified Voting, &ldquoIt was built for open communication.&rdquo.
And security isn&rsquot the only concern for e-voting. The cost of new voting machines is a recurring obstacle for states looking to upgrade. Each state decides the system and sort of machine they will use, and it&rsquos often the case that options are greatly restricted by budget.
For now, Smith says that most voters are content to use whatever technology is presented to them on election day&mdashuntil something goes wrong. Lines get longer while machines are pulled to the side to get fixed, and voters get nervous that something could be wrong with their vote.
But, noting that consumers now feel confident using this type of technology for banking and other institutions where security is of high importance, Hicks says he believes it&rsquos only a matter of time before confidence in paperless voting will match that achieved by paper ballots. If completely paperless voting is as inevitable as he says it is, who knows? Maybe a few elections from now we&rsquoll be voting from an app from the comfort of our couches as we watch cable news live-tweets of the results of individual ballots.