Before there were paper ballots in America, there was the human voice. Per the viva voce system, a practice with roots in Ancient Greece, eligible voters would call out the names of their preferred candidates to a government clerk, who registered votes in a pollbook. Sometimes bodies would suffice: in Kentucky, until the early nineteenth century, some elections were decided by counting the number of supporters lined up on opposite sides of the road. In some colonies, people would cast their votes with corn and beans—corn for yea, beans for nay.
Though voting “by papers” gained in popularity during Colonial times, state governments made little effort to standardize ballots until the early nineteenth century. Ballots often required voters to write their preferred candidate’s name on a scrap of paper, which might only be counted if the name was legible and correctly spelled. By the end of the eighteen-twenties, the sheer number of elected offices became too much for a scribe to list, paving the way for the legalization of printed ballots provided by party workers and candidates themselves. As political parties grew and the lists of candidates became longer, the ballots began to resemble the timetables on railway tickets—hence the term “party ticket.”
Despite regulations in some states that required ballots to be printed in black ink on white paper, parties would use distinctive graphic layouts and production methods that allowed party enforcers to monitor voting by visually determining the allegiance of the voter. Ballots were printed on off-white or brightly hued card stock for a more distinguishing look. The styles ranged from single names printed on small slips of paper to a riot of typefaces, colors, inks, and imagery. (After the Civil War, ballots commonly featured anti-immigrant party mottos, such as “Exclude the Chinese,” and allegorical depictions of the country threatened by encroaching immigrant hordes.) Elaborate designs were also printed on the back of ballots. Held in hand and displayed publicly, these ballots were their own form of political advertising, with the voter serving as a billboard.