The nation’s founders envisioned a world in which a limited number of propertied men rose above self-interest and voted on behalf of the rest of “the people.” Many of “the people,” however, showed a stubborn desire to vote directly to choose their leaders and laws. The result has been reluctant adjustments, contentious struggles, and ongoing negotiations as groups have tried to persuade lawmakers, the courts, and their fellow citizens to let them share the power of the polls.
Automatic Voting Machine, 1898
We stand in line with friends, neighbors, allies, and rivals. Sometimes silent, sometimes chatting, maybe even discussing the candidates we’re waiting to decide between. But our final vote, whether it’s behind a curtain or a cardboard screen, is a private moment. By the 1890s voting had moved from a public declaration to a secret ballot. This machine’s gear mechanism and curtain were designed to ensure accuracy, security, and privacy.
Getting the Vote
Voting rights expanded, contracted, and expanded again as Americans dealt with shifting issues of politics, race, class, and wealth. Each addition to the electorate brought a change to the balance of power and led to collisions between practical politics and America’s democratic ideal of government “by the people.” While some established voters believed that extending the vote to more Americans would strengthen the nation, others questioned including people who might not share their concerns, or who could threaten their control of the country’s political, social, and economic structures.
Woman Suffrage Wagon, 1870s–1920
Early suffragists advocating for women’s right to vote used this delivery wagon at speaking engagements and to distribute the suffrage magazine Woman's Journal. Later suffragists painted the wagon with slogans and continued to use it for rallies and publicity, as well as magazine sales.
Keeping the Vote
As new and diverse groups of Americans won the right to vote, local and national concerns shifted from whether or not they could vote to whether or not they would vote. Some advocates and officials encouraged voters to come out to the polls and looked for ways to make voting easier. Others changed voter registration requirements and Election Day rules in attempts to minimize the political power of newly enfranchised groups.
Mississippi voter registration form, 1955–1965
Proponents of tests to prove an applicant’s ability to read and understand English claimed that the exams ensured an educated and informed electorate. In practice they were used to disqualify immigrants and the poor, who had less education. In the South they were used to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. The Voting Rights Act ended the use of literacy tests in the South in 1965 and the rest of the country in 1970.
Leave this room and continue your tour at the blue wall in front of you. The next few objects are located along that wall.