‘This Is What Democracy Looked Like’ installation puts ballots on display

‘This Is What Democracy Looked Like’ installation puts ballots on display

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.

Installation image of "This Is What Democracy Looked Like." The Cooper Union, 4th Avenue window. Image courtesy of the Cooper Union. Photo by Marget Long.
Installation image of “This Is What Democracy Looked Like.” The Cooper Union, 4th Avenue window. Image courtesy of the Cooper Union. Photo by Marget Long.

The exhibition, titled “This Is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot,” draws its large-scale imagery from the pages of curator and writer Alicia Cheng’s book of the same name, which was published this summer by Princeton Architectural Press. Originally planned to be displayed indoors, the installation is visible from the sidewalk outside Cooper Union through Nov. 7.

“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.”

Left: Temperance tickets, Boston, ca. 1876. Voters were asked to “scratch the name of any man on the ballot that you do not think sound.” Center: Toleration Ticket, Connecticut, 1818. This early ballot has the party list printed multiple times on one sheet to save paper. The individual tickets would have been trimmed and distributed to voters. Right: Independent Greenback Ticket, presidential electors, Massachusetts, 1878. The Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, who was 85 when he ran on the Greenback Party ticket, was the oldest person ever nominated by any political party to run for U.S. President. Image: ourtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Left: Temperance tickets, Boston, ca. 1876. Voters were asked to “scratch the name of any man on the ballot that you do not think sound.” Center: Toleration Ticket, Connecticut, 1818. This early ballot has the party list printed multiple times on one sheet to save paper. The individual tickets would have been trimmed and distributed to voters. Right: Independent Greenback Ticket, presidential electors, Massachusetts, 1878. The Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, who was 85 when he ran on the Greenback Party ticket, was the oldest person ever nominated by any political party to run for U.S. President. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.

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.”

Americans made modifications to the Australian format by adding columns that allowed voters to choose a straight party ticket. This 1906 ballot from Pennsylvania shows names grouped by office with a straight party option. Images courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, the New York Public Library.
Americans made modifications to the Australian format by adding columns that allowed voters to choose a straight party ticket. This 1906 ballot from Pennsylvania shows names grouped by office with a straight party option. Images courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, the New York Public Library.

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.)

Over the years, the evolution of the ballot has continued, shifting through various technologies to varying degrees of success (and failures), but the power of paper endures.

Democratic Liberal Ticket, 1876. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Democratic Liberal Ticket, 1876. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
South Division ballot for Democratic presidential electors, 1864. This dense yet precise lithographic ballot is an impressive display of hand-drawn type. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
South Division ballot for Democratic presidential electors, 1864. This dense yet precise lithographic ballot is an impressive display of hand-drawn type. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Louisiana, 1904, with a densely typeset list of proposed amendments below the candidates’ names. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Louisiana, 1904, with a densely typeset list of proposed amendments below the candidates’ names. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Regular Republican Ticket, Massachusetts, 1878. Unusually precise example of multicolor printing using a chromatic press. Text is letterpress printed in different colors in one pass. Images courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, the New York Public Library.
Regular Republican Ticket, Massachusetts, 1878. Unusually precise example of multicolor printing using a chromatic press. Text is letterpress printed in different colors in one pass. Images courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, the New York Public Library.
National Democratic Nominations, California, ca. 1880. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
National Democratic Nominations, California, ca. 1880. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Independent Taxpayers Union Ticket, California, 1871. Multicolor print with hand lettering in two colorways that uses yellow as a second color. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Independent Taxpayers Union Ticket, California, 1871. Multicolor print with hand lettering in two colorways that uses yellow as a second color. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Union Ticket, California, 1864. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.
Union Ticket, California, 1864. Image courtesy of American Antiquarian Society; The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; California Historical Society; and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library.