Voting as it used to be

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(HOST) When you step into the voting booth tomorrow and pull the curtain closed behind you, commentator Neil Stout says you might pause to consider that voting hasn’t always been conducted in private, or for that matter – written down.

(STOUT) We Americans have voted for our representatives for more than three and a half centuries.

Some colonial elections would look familiar to us New Englanders. Each year, on Town Meeting Day, citizens gathered to conduct town business and choose representatives to the provincial legislature. Most town business was settled by voice vote, but selection of representatives (one or two from each town) was by paper ballot. When one Massachusetts town substituted corn and beans for paper slips, the legislature invalidated the result.

The South did things differently: representation was by county, rather than by town, and voting was viva voce – that is, by voice. It worked like this: the county sheriff (appointed by the royal governor) issued a notice for the “gentlemen freeholders” to gather at the county courthouse at a certain time. The sheriff sat at a table outdoors, flanked by the candidates. Each freeholder in turn was asked how he voted, to which he responded by singing out his choice for all to hear. Then he peeled off to the side of his chosen candidate, to be thanked personally and invited to have a drink of something strong and a treat from a spread each candidate provided. All observed what each candidate was serving. One hopes that they voted for the best man, rather than the best table and punch bowl.

Southern voters did not line up, as we will on Tuesday, in “first come, first vote” order. The county grandees went to the head of the line. In George Washington’s first election to the Virginia House of Burgesses, Lord Fairfax, who was the largest landholder in Virginia, went first. He voted for Washington. Frederick County’s other great landholders, the Anglican and Presbyterian clergymen, and the county’s only doctor followed Fairfax. Most of them voted his way. By the time the “ordinary” freeholders got to vote, they had a pretty good idea what was expected of them. George Washington upset an incumbent with 309 out of 399 votes cast.

In these days of expensive campaigns, you may note that the candidates provided twenty-eight gallons of rum, fifty of rum punch, thirty-four of wine, forty-six of beer, and two gallons of cider royal – a bit over a quart and a half per voter. But Frederick County, Virginia, gained an exceptional Burgess who went on to bigger things.

In parts of the South voting viva voce lasted long after Independence — in South Carolina until the end of the Civil War. The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a secret ballot, though local practice and state laws have long since made it the rule. Still, when I was a Texas citizen in the early 1960’s, we voted with no barrier to inquiring eyes and you had to sign the ballot.

So, when you cast your vote tomorrow, you will carry on an old American tradition, and its secrecy is an old New England custom.

Neil Stout of Burlington is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont, and he’s voted in every election since 1954.

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