Transparent: voting in America

The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.

John Lewis, Civil Rights Leader (1940–2020)
August 26, 2020 – January 17, 2021
West Bridge

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.

A ballot from 1876
Ballots handed out for presidential, federal, state, and local elections (in Massachusetts, 1876) list candidates from one party for many races. A “straight ticket” means voting only for candidates from one party. These pre-printed ballots made it easier to vote for the one-party straight ticket. Its distinctive decorations also made it possible for observers to tell who you voted for when the ballot went into a transparent glass ballot box. While today’s ballots are cast in secret, counting them in secret would be very problematic to most voters, and contrary to transparency.

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.

A newspaper illustration of a woman with one hand open toward a circular glass ballot box. A crowd of people are in the background and someone paints a poster on a wall in the background.
Uncle Sam (the United States personified, on the ladder) declares that ballots are more powerful than the bullets of the Civil War. His older sister, Columbia (also a personification of the nation), points to the transparent glass ballot box. The phrase "Go and do likewise" refers to a story in the Christian Gospel of Luke, where readers are implored to act like the Good Samaritan: to “do likewise” by spreading the gospel of democracy, by choosing ballots over bullets.

Harper’s Weekly, December 2, 1871. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.
A newspaper illustration of a woman cleaning graffiti off a bench and a man pouring a bucket of water in the background.
Uncle Sam and his older sister, Columbia, the male and female personifications of the United States, are shown cleaning up the government using “reform soap.” Uncle Sam works on the glass ballot box, removing the surface corruption to make it transparent again. Columbia scrubs away the graffiti of the corrupt judge’s bench with its crooked justices: “Judge Buyme,” “Judge Fraud,” “Judge Anyprice,” and “Judge Bribe.” ​The cartoon is filled with details that reward a careful look.

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.

The box office is closed; the wealthy man cannot buy a seat in the “theater” that represents the Senate. The barred door is watched by an authoritative yet fair law-enforcement officer (perhaps Uncle Sam), who ensures transparency, prevents corruption, and preserves public opinion (note the officer’s baton).​ Instead, he points to the only way into the Senate chamber: through the transparency of the glass ballot box, controlled by a voter. Buying a seat or buying a vote can take on various forms, including making or accepting campaign contributions to curry favor, threatening election transparency.

Puck,  August 6, 1902. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
A newspaper illustration of a large man with his arms and legged crossed looking angry at a line of people putting their vote in the ballot box. The line of men are dressed half in Western wear, with the other half is in stereotypical dress from other countries.
The people lining up to vote are each portrayed as divided. Their right side indicates their nationality of origin, their left side their status as Americans. In order, we see caricatures of Irish (indicated by a shamrock and a monkeyish face), German (with pipe, farmer’s hat, and Dutch wooden shoe), probably English (top hat, large mustache), Italian (stylish hat with feather), Hungarian, and other national attires. Note that it is the right side, the foreign side, of each voter, that is casting the vote.

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.

National News

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.  

A newspaper illustration of a man on crutches and missing his right leg putting his vote in a circular glass ballot box. A line of men are in line behind the voter.
Should Confederate soldier veterans have had the right to vote? Immediately after the Civil War, the issue was fiercely debated. This anti-Confederacy cartoon takes a strong position against this privilege: “We vote as we fought. Union men must rule and not traitors.” It also criticizes two politicians: Reuben Fenton (Republican governor of New York, 1865–1868), who enabled the burial of Union and Confederate soldiers who had died at the battle of Antietam; and Thaddeus Stevens (Republican congressperson for Pennsylvania, 1849–1853 and 1859–1868), who drafted elements of various proposals for the 14th Amendment addressing voting rights for ex-Confederates and Black Americans.

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.
A cartoon featuring a woman in the center saying "I can handle both" as she holds a ballot box in one hand and a cradle in the other
One of the many challenges women faced in the fight for voting privileges was overcoming a widespread belief that acting on this right would somehow lead women to abandon their traditional roles. This illustration is one of a series in a California campaign that brilliantly counters this reasoning. The elegantly attired lady confidently asserts that she can simultaneously carry out her maternal and political responsibilities, balancing the needs of her family with her right to participate in the political process of her nation. ​

San Francisco Sunday Call, July 4, 1909. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Women's Weekly

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.

An illustration of three women outside of a capital building, with two holding flags and one holding a circular glass ballot box.
Three women arrive in a car representing “Modern Methods,” guided by a star shining brightly over the Capitol. They carry three gifts: a flag titled “Loyalty,” another named “Courage,” and a transparent glass ballot box labeled “Power.” The illustration alludes to the Christian Gospel of Matthew, in which three magi from the East bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are led by a guiding star to find the infant Jesus. For the American population of 1915, the allusion was transparent and powerful.

 "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.
A newspaper illustration of a woman adding her vote to the circular glass ballot box with a man holding his hands out
In 1871, Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee (also known as Tennie or Jennie) Claflin, attempted to vote in New York on the basis of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted voting rights to citizens. They were denied, as depicted in this cartoon entitled “Woman Franchise – The Notorious Victoria Woodhull and Jennie C. Claflin present their votes at the Poll at New York City, and are denied the exercise of their ballot.” The following year, Victoria Woodhull ran for president, with abolitionist vice-presidential running mate Frederick Douglass. Her candidacy was technically not legal – she was younger than the legally required age of 35 for a president; moreover, as women residing in New York were not allowed to vote, she could not vote for herself.

The Days' Doings vol 3 / 9 December 1871. Courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library.
A advertisement illustration of three women putting their vote into a circular glass ballot box
While some opponents tried to link the act of voting to the demise of traditional women’s roles, savvy advertisers used voting to express support for such roles, exploiting the connection to sell their products. The ability of women to vote for a household product is featured in a Fleischmann’s Yeast ad from the 1880s.

Courtesy of Ann Lewis Women's Suffrage Collection.
Headshot of Ellery Foutch smiling in front of a white background

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.

Meet The Curator

Marvin Bolt

Curator of Science and Technology