“The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.”
-John Lewis, Civil Rights Leader (1940–2020)
Transparent: voting in America explores issues surrounding a core value of democracy: that the voting process is fair and open to scrutiny. These concepts are conveyed in the exhibition through a series of historical cartoons in which the idea of election transparency is represented by a transparent glass ballot box circa 1884, also on view at the Museum.
As new laws expanded the right to vote in the late 1800s and early 20th century, other laws and unjust practices often hid those rights by suppressing access to the ballot box. While glass ballot boxes are relics of the past, the messages they signal about transparency represent issues we still face in 2020.
When you visit, see numerous newspaper illustrations about transparency in voting, discover a transparent glass ballot box from 1884, and learn about the people who played important roles in bringing transparency to United States elections.
Can't make it to the Museum? Explore a selection of historical illustrations in the digital exhibition below.
Courtesy of Library of Congress
Transparency: The ideal of voting in a democracy
In the 1850s widespread corruption in American politics led to the invention of the glass ballot box. Literally, the transparent glass ballot box shows each vote; metaphorically, it shows that each vote will be counted, and that the whole election process is as transparent as glass. Voting transparency has become an increasingly controversial issue in the 2020 presidential election.
Harper’s Weekly, December 2, 1871. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.
Harper’s Weekly, May 7, 1881. Courtesy of HarpWeek.com.
Harper's Weekly, May 15, 1880. Courtesy of HathiTrust.
Harper’s Weekly, December 16, 1871. Courtesy of HathiTrust.
Business & Finance
Corruption threatens voting transparency and undermines the free choice of an independent voter. Corruption can happen in many ways: stuffing a ballot box with fraudulent votes, altering the voting counts, or making campaign donations that are implied payments for favors once a candidate takes office. Making voting requirements difficult to meet for certain groups, restricting times and places to vote, intimidating voters, or creating a confusing ballot are some forms of corruption designed to limit people’s ability to cast votes at all.
Puck, August 6, 1902. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Harper’s Weekly, July 31, 1880. Courtesy of HathiTrust.
Harper’s Weekly, October 7, 1871. Courtesy of HathiTrust.
The cartoon’s message reflects a widespread anti-immigrant sentiment still expressed by some today: “Why should I let these freaks cast whole votes when they are only half American?” The cartoon’s title also highlights issues that continue to stir controversy in 2020 about who are “real” Americans.
Puck, August 9, 1899. The Ohio State University, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.
In the American Civil War (1861–1865), the (eventually victorious) northern states of the Union fought against the southern states of the Confederacy, primarily over the issue of enslaving Black Americans. Reconstructing the nation after the Civil War meant freeing enslaved people and grappling with notions of citizenship and voting rights for former Confederate soldiers, Black and Native American men, and immigrants.
The 15th Constitutional Amendment granted Black men the right to vote in 1870. Black voter turnout swelled, and Black congressman were elected through the 1880s and 1890s. To counter these trends, Jim Crow laws were passed and remained in force until the 1960s; election fraud expanded through corruption, political machines, and other scandals. For decades, the glass ballot box served as a prominent symbol for transparency in politics, including who counted as a true American and therefore had the right to vote.
Native Americans did not become US citizens until passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. Even so, if they lived on reservations, Native Americans across the country did not all achieve the right to vote until 1958. Effects of the injustice of denying citizenship and suppressing voting rights for people of indigenous nations continue today.
Harpers Weekly, April 22, 1871. Courtesy of HathiTrust.
Even though the 15th Amendment gave Black men in the United States the right to vote, that right was restricted in practice for a century by such Jim Crow voter suppression tactics as poll taxes and literacy tests, limiting Black voters’ access to the ballot box until the civil rights acts of the 1960s.
Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1880. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Despite the transparency of the ballot box and the law permitting Confederate soldiers to vote, in this cartoon voter intimidation is strongly implied, if not encouraged. Although the last Confederate soldier died in 1956 (the last Confederate widow in 2004, and the last Confederate pensioner in 2020), the role of Confederate soldiers in civic life has come to the forefront recently in heated debates about displaying Confederate statues and flags in public places.
Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1867. Courtesy of House David, Dickinson College.
San Francisco Sunday Call, July 4, 1909. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
One hundred years ago, the 19th Amendment (1920) prohibited federal and state governments from denying women the legal right to vote. In practice, this applied primarily to White women, as most women of color were blocked by state constitutions, voter intimidation, poll taxes, and other obstructions until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Since 1964 the number of women voters has exceeded the number of men voters in every presidential election; as women tend to vote differently from men, women have considerable impact on the election of public servants. Yet women continue to be underrepresented as elected officials even a century after the passage of their legal right to vote.
"The Wise Women of the West Come Bearing Gifts" by Nina Allender, Dec. 18, 1915 . National Womens Party at Belmont Paul Womens Equality National Monument.
The Days' Doings vol 3 / 9 December 1871. Courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library.
Courtesy of Ann Lewis Women's Suffrage Collection.
Special Thanks to Ellery Foutch
Ellery Foutch, Assistant Professor in American Studies at Middlebury College in Middlebury Vermont, conducted the research on glass ballot boxes that provided the foundation for this exhibition. We are indebted to her work, to her generosity in sharing the resources she discovered, and to her feedback in the development of this exhibition.