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Letters to the Editor

Polling Place Protocols

November 16, 2019

Dear Rail Splitter:

I am a history teacher who has been collecting Civil War memorabilia and relics for the last 10 years, not only for my own personal enjoyment but also for that of my 8th grade history students. I recently purchased an Ohio (Ottawa County) presidential ballot for Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. The election process then, from what I can tell, seems to be much different than it is now. I’ve been trying to do some research on the process but I’ve been getting conflicting information. If I understand correctly an individual would come up to an election judge and ask for a pre-printed ballot with the name of the candidate they supported and then put it into the ballot box. The ballots were then counted and the tally was sent to the State Capital rather than the ballots themselves. The ballots would then be stored in the bank vault or some other safe location (these found treasure troves is why there are still so many ballots in circulation in the historical marketplace). If you could provide me with any clarification or additional information about the ballot I purchased and the election process, I (and my students) would really appreciate it.

Thank you very much,

Patrick H.

[Editor:] Thanks for contacting the Rail Splitter in regard to your 1864 Lincoln Ohio ballot. Much of what we know regarding the voting process in the 19th century relies on an examination of the available material culture (artifacts). It is inferred.

There were no secret ballots prior to 1892. Eligible voters (typically white males over the age of 21 who had presided in the county for a certain period of time) came to a polling place on the day appointed (not always the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, but sometimes the day before). There was typically an election judge who supervised the operation and two clerks. I assume they had a list of eligible voters. They also generated additional documents that included a poll book wherein the names of the voters who cast ballots were inscribed, along with the slate of presidential electors they voted for. The election officials would sign the book, indicating their sworn fidelity to the law and the accuracy of their tabulation.

In a presidential election, the voters cast their ballots for a slate of presidential electors, rather than a specific candidate. In 1864, it was either the National Union [Republican] or Democratic slate. It didn’t matter if the ballot said “Lincoln” or anyone else… the slate of electors prevailed. The voters were not provided with ballots by the polling place officials. They brought their own ballots (pre-printed by local printers and handed out by party functionaries) or excised them from newspapers, or simply hand-wrote the names of the electors on a scrap of paper. Once their eligibility had been confirmed, they deposited their ballot in one of the ballot boxes (sometimes marked with the name of the candidate or party), in full view of everyone.

After the polling place closed, the officials signed the poll book, certifying the results and sent those documents to the County Clerk, along with a tally sheet summarizing the results. After that, one must assume the county results were forwarded to the State Capital for an official tabulation and certification. The successful presidential electors were then notified and asked to meet in the State Capital on a specified date to cast their ballots. Presidential Elector ballots typically had the names of the President & Vice President on them and nothing else. As to the disposition of the actual ballots, it is believed these were bundled up and sent to the State Capital where they were stored in the basement until disposed of.