As millions of Americans cast their vote for the future, an exhibition at Cooper Union takes a look at ballots from the past.
Lining the windows of the college’s Foundation Building are 26 print reproductions of ballots from the 19th century — a time of topographical pageantry presided over by political parties rather than governments.
“Ballots today may look boring and bureaucratic, but they are the most direct tool of participatory democracy,” Cheng, who is a founding partner of MGMT. design and the Cooper Union’s Fall 2019 Frank Stanton Chair in Graphic Design, said in a statement. “The act of voting is a critical part of our civic discourse.”
The colorful display aims to provide “insight into a pivotal time in American history” by “tracing the explosive growth of an evolving electorate as well as a legacy of electoral fraud and disenfranchisement,” according to the exhibition organizers.
“From absentee votes to protest write-ins, ballots are a direct way for us to express ourselves as citizens,” Cheng said. “But historically there wasn’t any regulations for how a ballot looked or how it was produced.”
The installation continues the project set out in Cheng’s book, which chronicles the changes voting has undergone from the days of indicating choices with the voice (the viva voce system), to counting with beans or rice or people, to paper ballots.
“These visual artifacts demonstrate how voting has changed, helping us better understand how our struggle in making an imperfect system that is honest and fair might have evolved,” Chen explained.
As writing names on slips of paper became untenable in the 1800s, it became more commonplace for political parties to pre-print ballots for voters to use. The ballots varied widely, from smaller slips to heavily designed sheets printed with a slew of bright inks, symbols and fonts. Beyond the designs, ballots sometimes included racist and xenophobic slogans, such as “Exclude the Chinese.”
The eye-catching bits of paper also served as a mode of propaganda. Unlike the private voting we know today, the quickly identifiable designs allowed campaigning party members, the exhibition contends, to “easily track which votes were cast,” providing “evidence of early methods of voter suppression and intimidation.”
“Elaborate designs were also printed on the back of ballots,” Cheng wrote about the ballots in The New Yorker in 2018. “Held in hand and displayed publicly, these ballots were their own form of political advertising, with the voter serving as a billboard.”
In the late 1800s, as the government began to take control of the voting process, the ornate designs were replaced with an Australian-ballot system that broke candidates into the office they were running for rather than into party tickets. (It should be noted this came with its own form of voter suppression, as the ballots were more difficult for those who could not read to understand.)