How the Secret Ballot Came to Iowa

Iowans, has voting got you down? C’mon, cheer up and practice gratitude to the Aussies who 162 years ago invented something that forever changed how we vote in America: the Australian Secret Ballot.

Before its introduction in the U.S., voters clipped ballots from the highly partisan local newspapers. Printed on different color newsprint, there was no privacy to which party you were supporting and little protection against cheaters slyly slipping extra ballots into the box. By 1868 the infamous Boss Tweed of New York’s Tammany Hall had elevated ballot box stuffing from a high crime to a fine art.

Back in 1858, two states Down Under simultaneously disrupted Australia’s own corrupt political machinery by introducing officially issued ballots and inventing the private voting booth. These improvements took thirty years to be imported here into New York and Massachusetts, and another four to reach Iowa.

Initially, Iowa Republicans distrusted the measure. State Senator J.G. Hutchinson of Wapello County feared that a suspicious state-issued ballot might discourage “honest” Republican farmers from going to the polls. But the public felt differently, as one writer enthused: “The Australian Ballot has come to this country to stay. A secret ballot far removed from intimidation is demanded. It is in the interest of the masses.”

In his Biennial Address of 1890, Iowa Governor Larrabee, declared that the 22nd General Assembly would take up the matter, but his Republicans couldn’t support a Democratic Bill. Finally realizing its popular appeal, they offered their own measure in 1892. Democrats surprisingly embraced their opponents’ version, making Iowa the 38th state to adopt the reform.

Since the bill would become law on the first of November, local officials had to scurry to print newly official ballots for the 1892 presidential contest between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. Then there was the matter of supplying a new-fangled “voting booth” for every sixty voters. Polk County bought 450 three-foot-square canvas models at four dollars apiece from the quickly-formed “Iowa Voting Booth Company,” for a total of $1,800. (That’s $50,000 in today’s dollars!)

Local papers published the new rules: Hours were from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Disabled voters could be offered help, but drunkards were given none and thrown out if they dawdled past the ten-minute time limit. Unlike today, employers were required to allow their workers two hours at the polls.

The Register reported that the election “went off as smooth as a church social.” For those twelve hours, everything ran like clockwork. The paper conceded that The Australian System is an expensive one for a state like Iowa but is likely to be permanent.” And so, it has – only today’s electronic ballot reader would have been unfamiliar to the pioneer voter of 1892.

So, fellow citizens, relax, the voting booth remains the confidential and secure inner sanctum of American democracy. (Well, let us hope!)

P.S. Thank you, Australia.



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