The History of Ballot Design is the History of Democracy – As millions of Americans begin to head to the polls, here’s how our printed ballots have evolved

1) Early Ballots

Early ballots were printed using letterpress with the voter writing in the candidates name by hand. These pre-printed tickets from the 1850s made it easy confirm the sale of intoxicating liquors in Boston.

2) Ballots as Propaganda

Ballots were often used to illustrate a particular party platform, like this vivid anti-Chinese ticket for the Workingmen’s party in San Francisco. Several parties touted the protection of White labor, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law barring a specific ethnicity from immigrating to America.

3) Impressive Displays of Typographic Grandstanding

The mid- and late-nineteenth century was a period of heavy experimentation in the printing world. Wood type, metal type, and lithography were often combined, creating layouts that are impressive displays of typographic grandstanding.

4) DIY Ballots

Ballot modifications were not discouraged by political parties and were so habitual that small strips of gummed paper called “pasters” would be sent to voters or handed out at the polls. Glue pots were provided at polling stations so voters could literally stick alternative candidates’ names on top of the printed ones. Ballots layouts became more elaborate as a reflection of the period style, but also served as an attempt to foil pasting efforts with serpentine typesetting.

5) The Australian Ballot

The adoption of the new Australian ballot format in the late 1880s was a radical shift in format, but these examples are more aligned with ballots we recognize today. Mandated by the government, all candidates were listed by office and the ballot was cast in private. Despite the regulations, modifications still persisted, like this New York ballot from 1914 that used tiny emblems to denote party affiliation. Voters were now able to freely select candidates across different parties, but detractors claimed the layout was too arduous as the volume of candidates and offices necessitated sometimes huge and unwieldy trim sizes. 

Ballot reformers like civic activist Richard Childs proposed ‘short ballots’ to simplify the decision making process and make it easier for the average voter. “The people must take an interest in all their electoral work if they are to be masters. If they do not take an interest in a given ballot, there are two solutions—change the people or change the ballot,” he wrote in his 1911 book, Short Ballot Principles. “As the people are too big to be spanked, and since human nature in the mass responds but slowly to prayer, it is good sense to change the ballot.”

Source: AIGA