I am so very grateful that Election Day is finally upon us. I’ve been living in a world of division over the past many months: divided family, divided household, divided department, divided circle of friends. Facebook has been absolutely unbearable in the last month or so–even more so than normal. Hopefully we can all move on no matter what the outcomes. All this early voting confuses and upsets me: I think it’s adding to the divisiveness. Why can’t we just have one day, Election Day, when we all exercise our civic obligation and privilege at the same time? If it’s a matter of access and opportunity, I would certainly support an Election Day holiday, but I think we should all vote on the same day and then celebrate our ability to vote on Election Night.
I’m very curious about the experience of voting in the past, and the speed by which news of the results reached the electorate. Few of my Americanist colleagues could give me any satisfactory insights into this, and my own knowledge of early modern Europe–and age when kings and queens ruled–is not much help. I imagine that the experience of voting was very different in the cities and the countryside, and that it took weeks, if not months, to know the results before the telegraph and telephone. One colleague suggested we search through a database of early American newspapers to see when the election results reached Salem, and our findings were both predictable and surprising: predictable in the sense that it clearly took several weeks to confirm the election of a president through most of the nineteenth century, surprising in the way they voted–over several days. So there goes my criticism of the supposed “innovation” of early voting. The logistics of democracy are often complicated, then and now.
My research into the mechanics of voting did turn up some great election materials, from a succession of campaigns and elections past, beginning with a lovely banner from one of the most contested elections of all time: the 1800 race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I love this banner from the Smithsonian, and wonder where it was displayed.
My election images are a mixture of materials: from campaigns and periodicals primarily. I would have liked to get inside the polling place, or on the streets just outside, but that was seldom possible. And I’m not even getting close to the present: too divisive. The past is safer.
Two very popular prints: Election Day outside Independence Hall, Philadelphia, 1816, by Alexander Lawson, and James Polk trying to prove he is not pro-Catholic, 1844, both Library of Congress.
The telegraph delivers the results of the 1856 election & a Charles Maurand print of the celebrations following the election of Abraham Lincoln in the streets of New York, 1860, Harper’s Weekly; a metamorphic trade card for the presidential contest of 1876 between Tilden and Grant, Duke University Library Special Collections.
Inside the Polling Place: voting in New York City, 1898 and a Jacob Riis photograph of a mock election, 1890, Museum of the City of New York.
The emergence of public opinion: campaign cards for William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan from the 1908 election–before women could vote, of course, and a nation divided between Roosevelt, Wilson and Taft in 1912, Library of Congress.