Monday, November 2, 2020

How San Francisco Voted in the 19th Century

Party representatives handing out tickets to voters in 1864 (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)

For most of the 19th Century, before the adoption of the “Australian” system of secret ballots, voting in San Francisco and the rest of the US was a very different experience than today.

At the polling place, there were no private booths for secret voting. Instead, you obtained a “ticket” pre-filled with all the candidate names for your chosen party, and turned that in to the election officials as your vote.

"You," by the way, would have to be an English-speaking white man, as no one else was allowed to vote; until 1868, when the right was extended to African-American men.

The all-seeing eye of the Vigilance Committee stares out of a People's Party ballot of the late 1850s. This and several other 19th Century party tickets from San Francisco can be seen at the SFSD History Research Project.

Choosing a ticket could be very confusing, as there were a lot of choices. The Democrats in California were often split, between “Chivalry” (pro-Southern, pro-slavery) and “Anti-Chivalry” (working class, largely immigrant, and anti-slavery) factions. Whichever faction was in power would control the Democratic Ticket, while the other might print up a competing “Independent Democratic” ticket. The Republicans also often splintered at either the national or the local level, with “Liberal Republican” and “Independent Republican” tickets appearing in various years.

Added to this were a variety of local parties and tickets. In addition to the People’s Party, which ruled San Francisco for much of the 1850s and 60s, and the racist Workingmen’s Party of the late 1870s, there were Citizens’, Taxpayers’, and Reform tickets. In some years these were combined (as in the “Citizens and Taxpayers” ticket). On the 1869 ticket of the Bellringers, a dissident local Republican faction, you would have found the real Tom Sawyer running for Board of Supervisors in the Tenth District.

If you didn’t agree with every name on your ticket, you had the option to “scratch” the ballot by crossing out names and writing-in your preferred candidates. To prevent scratching, parties would fill in all the available space on their tickets with words and imagery, or issue long, thin “tapeworm” ballots which were too narrow to fit anything more than the printed names. To defeat this, in turn, alternative candidates printed “pasters” with names that you could glue onto your ballot, over the printed name. You could also choose a ticket that, instead of running its own slate of candidates, endorsed selected candidates from more established parties. An example was the Anti-Coolie ticket, which printed the names of those Democratic and Republican candidates who were judged to be most stridently anti-Chinese.

This masthead from a ticket of the Workingmen's Party makes their racist political agenda crystal clear. (from "The Workingmen's Party of California, 1877-1882," California Historical Quarterly, 55(1)58-73, Spring 1976.) 

With all the possibility for confusion, tickets were designed to be distinct and easily recognizable, with unique color schemes, fonts, and illustrated mast-heads. This did not, however, prevent trickery: the backers of an unpopular ticket could steal votes from their more popular rivals by printing up doppelgangers, identical in color, design, and even party name—but with different candidates on the list—to fool inattentive voters. Even more shadily, some factions reputedly resorted to tickets printed in invisible, slow-appearing ink, which after several hours would replace the visible names on the ticket with a new set of names, unbeknownst to the unwitting voter.

A certain amount of violence was fairly common during polling, as competing party representatives tried pushing their ballots into voters' hands, and both voters and voting officials indulged in fisticuffs. The exception was during the relatively peaceful reign of the People's Party, when armed guards were posted at the polls to prevent fighting; not to mention, to discourage would-be Democratic voters.

For more on the fascinating world of 19th Century voting, see:

This is What Democracy Looked Like

The Glass Ballot Box and Political Transparency