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History of type, Graphic design

This Is What Democracy Looked Like

Alicia Cheng’s new book explores the visual history of the American voting ballot. Incredibly, it makes voting today not look so bad.

The 2020 election has been marked by several oddities, including the strong emphasis—thanks to COVID—that people vote in advance. For some, it has been more convenient; for others it has caused a comparable amount of worry and frustration: “How do I know if my ballot will arrive on time?” is a common concern. It must still seem better than the 2016 hacks or 2018 technical issues. Despite all the stress, voters today have it quite easy historically speaking. At least, that was my biggest takeaway from Alicia Yin Cheng’s new book, This Is What Democracy Looked Like.

A spread from Cheng’s essay: The Most Fugitive Ephemera, featuring “Diagram of the Rise and Fall of American Political Parties, from 1789 to 1880, inclusive,” by Walter R. Houghton, 1880.

One might be forgiven for having no idea how voting worked a hundred years ago, let alone two-hundred years ago. It is not taught in American History or relayed through popular culture. Even historical movies—where, sadly, many learn their history—don’t touch the subject. It’s a little too boring. Except, it didn’t used to be.

In early America, records of voting were nonexistent because it was done by one’s voice, in the viva voce system. The population (and the subset of eligible voters) was manageably small enough such that voting one at a time in each town. This method not only grew out of hand, but also as “a commenter from New Jersey expressed [,] the public declaration of one’s vote ‘openly wounded the tender sensibilities of friendship.’” It did not take long for this method to fade away, giving rise to the printed ballot.

Early ballots were letterpress printed with simple black ink on white pieces of paper (1817); as were election notices (1880).

The introduction of the printed ballot did not bring with it an inclination towards archival; they were, after-all, designed to be marked, handed-in, counted, and destroyed. Cheng’s first essay in the book borrows its title from a ballot collector in 1940, who called ballots “the most fugitive ephemera.” In it, she explains that—aside from some ballots that were used to tally counts—“it is hard to know precisely just how these ballots managed to survive.”

For a great deal of American history, our ballots were designed and regulated not by the state but by the parties. One can imagine the cheap ploys and flash employed on these: They were today’s most manipulative political advertisements in the form of little (or big) paper slips. On the bright side, what meant unfair election tactics then means visually interesting artifacts now.

The earliest ballots were all letterpress printed in one color (usually black) and included votes for an entire party. There was little security or verification at the point of voting and result accuracy was dubious at best. Entire elections were bought by simply bribing voters on their way to the polling station with bottles of rum. Elections were rigged by “stuffing” ballot boxes. More still were rigged “by whiskers,” a process in which men would begin the day voting with a full beard, then trim it down incrementally and return to cast more votes.

Eventually, the Australians created the basic structure of the modern voting system, which is defined by two characteristics: it is done in secret, and the state creates the ballots. When this new system made its way to the states, parties needed new ways to influence voters (still in the pre-advertising era); thus came sample ballots, which mimic the real thing but include but arrows or other flourishes to prompt voters.

Sometimes, ballot designers would color-code the elections, as in these 1870 California Democratic ballots for different ward elections.

In addition to Cheng’s own writing, This Is What Democracy Looked Like includes essays by Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, and Victoria Bassetti, the author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters. While not a rigorous history of voting in America, Cheng’s book certainly covers everything relevant to designers.

The 200 color illustrations and their detailed captions tell the story about as well as possible. They cover everything from the earliest ballots to the infamous “butterfly” ballot, which “caused confusion among voters in Palm Beach County,” where “mismarked and spoiled ballots forced a recount” in 2000.

Sample ballots sometimes employ arrows and instructions to make their desired result extra clear (1956, 1933, 1960). Meanwhile, the infamously unclear Florida presidential “butterfly ballot” caused enough issues to force a recount in 2000.

Through the 176 pages, one can see the transition from simple black-and-white ballots to fancifully ornamented party ballots, then a return to simplicity with the introduction of the Australian system and mechanized voting. In the caption of a wonderful 1930 specimen book of Linotype’s matrices for composing ballots:

This selection includes a lever for ballots used in gear-and-lever voting machines, which began to replace paper ballots in the early twentieth century. The adoption of mechanized voting technology saw the demise of freewheeling ballot designs and a new age of compliant, graphically torpid ballots we see today.

There is no colophon, but the neo-grotesque sans used in the headers and whatever version of Garamond designer MGMT chose for the body text combines for a classic, official-yet-sharp appearance befitting the subject. For those interested in typography, graphic design, letterpress printing, user experience design, or democracy: This Is What Democracy Looked Like balances design and history splendidly.


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