VFH Fellow Enlarges Database on Nineteenth-Century Voting Records
By William Kurtz
Politics and elections in nineteenth-century Virginia, in which only men could vote, were quite different from how they are today. According to Don DeBats, historian at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and a Fellow at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH), one of the most important differences was the method of casting one’s vote.
While today citizens cast their ballots in private, back then Virginian men cast their votes viva voce—that is, by speaking their choice aloud in front of the rest of their community. As DeBats told With Good Reason in a recent interview, “The whole notion of secrecy is not something that people had [then]. Basically, politics was about something that was communal.” The system of casting one’s vote in public, in fact, had been a common practice “since the United States began.”
Americans did not vote this way in every state, but in those few states that did use the viva voce system, historians such as DeBats have been able to examine the public recording of citizens’ votes in poll books to examine how and why individuals voted the way they did in nineteenth-century elections. “Where poll books exist we can recreate what every single person did at that election,” DeBats remarked.
The system of voting aloud had both merits and drawbacks. On one hand, a lot of the excitement of politics and voting has disappeared from present-day elections due to the abandonment of voting by voice or by casting a pre-filled party ticket, the other form of voting common at that time.
It was a celebration, it was a festival, and that’s what elections were. – Don DeBats
“It was a celebration, it was a festival, and that’s what elections were,” said DeBats. For example, on one occasion when George Washington ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, “a quart and a half [of alcohol] per voter” was served. The pairing of alcohol and voting lasted well into the nineteenth century. As DeBats remarked, “[There was] lots and lots of booze in these elections. It was really very unregulated.” Reform at the end of the century ended such abuses but may have unintentionally contributed to the relatively low levels of interest in political campaigns today. “What they did [to sanitize politics] was to take a lot of the fun out of it. Why do we have to make it secret? Why do we have to make it so private?”
On the other hand, the system of oral voting suffered from more serious abuses than excessive alcoholic consumption, including the potential to intimidate voters. Virginia had to give up viva voce elections as a condition of re-entering the Union, but the ticket system provide little more secrecy than had oral voting. DeBats asserted that for a generation after the Civil War, all voters, including the newly freed African Americans, voted knowing that their vote was visible to all in attendance at the election. But secret voting (known at the time as the “Australian ballot”), which came to Virginia in 1894, did not necessarily protect civil rights or increase voters’ choices on Election Day. Many prohibitions were put in place to limit the suffrage itself, but the ballot was also a problem. “If you couldn’t read, you couldn’t vote,” DeBats argued, because an illiterate voter could not be sure that he had cast his ballot for the right candidates. Thus the secret ballot played a part in effectively disenfranchising many African Americans and poor whites. Democrats and Republicans also self-interestedly favored voting reforms because it helped keep the proliferation of third parties in check.
With funding from VFH, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Flinders University, and the Australian Research Council, DeBats and others including the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and Lynn Rainville have created a remarkable digital humanities project, Voting Viva Voce: Unlocking the Social Logic of Past Politics.
Voting Viva Voce examines poll books and other records from two southern towns, Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1850s and Newport, Kentucky, in the 1870s, in order to understand better the politics of the era. According to its website, the project’s members hope to use these records and digital tools to analyze the “significance of context for individual electoral decision” in ways that previous scholars could not do so before. They believe it will reveal new insights useful to a variety of disciplines while generating “a stream of publications, conference presentations, co-authored articles, and an interpretive monograph.” Although still a work in progress, the website already provides free access to its growing database to anyone interested in learning more about these two communities.
*George Caleb Bingham, American, 1811–1879; The County Election, 1852; oil on canvas; 38 x 52 in. (96.5 x 132.1 cm); Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Bank of America 44:2001
- A History of Voting in America – BackStory with the American History Guys
- Don DeBats on With Good Reason
- Disfranchisement – Encyclopedia Virginia
About the Author
William Kurtz works at Documents Compass as an assistant editor on the Founders Online project. He received a PhD in history from UVA in 2012 and is currently revising a book for publication on Catholic Americans in the Civil War.