Once upon a time in America, long before we had large clunky voting machines which now have largely been replaced with far smaller, more sophisticated and technologically advanced apparatuses which enable us to determine who will mis-govern us for the next few years until we repeat the exercise, people cast their ballots using paper and pen.
With the introduction of the voting machine, at first we used them for the “important” races – president, senators, congressmen, governors and the like. Things like constitutional amendments and people running for judgeships were still conducted using paper. After all, no one understood the implications of those constitutional amendments and it was virtually impossible to get any information on any of the people running for judicial office so people, if they bothered to vote in those elections did so based on whether the name of one of the candidates appealed to them. It seemed as good a way as any to cast an uninformed vote.
This is not to say that the votes cast on the machines were necessarily much better informed. In Chicago, the Cook County Democratic party typically handed out a simple instruction guide for those who were unclear on which candidates might best represent their interest. The one page instruction guide was simply entitled, “HOW TO VOTE.” That pretty much said it all – and despite the fact that many voters in Chicago were Polish or Hispanic, the simple guide was only available in English. But the graphics certainly overcame the prospective voter’s possible lack of familiarity with the lingua franca.
The “guide” instructed the voter to:
1) Pull the red lever to the left. (This closed the curtain to ensure privacy as the citizen went about his or her important business).
2) Pull Lever “A”. (This was a straight Democratic party vote).
3) Pull the red lever to the right. (This opened the curtain and recorded the vote on the meters at the back of the machine).
The guide concluded with the congratulatory message:
“YOU HAVE NOW VOTED. THANK YOU.”
As simple as this was, there were some precincts in which technological advances somehow languished. Interestingly, these were often in precincts which had a heavy concentration of SRO’s – Single Residence Occupancy buildings whose tenants were often street people who would panhandle during the day, buy their bottle of Ripple and return to their residencies at night to curl up with their bottle and a tattered copy of “Tropic of Cancer.”
These voters were often hung over on Election day and every other day, yet getting them out to vote was an important part of the local Democratic precinct captain’s job security plan with the city so a different strategy was adopted to make sure that they not only got out to vote but that they voted “correctly.” The entire voter fraud scheme relied on stealing one blank paper ballot.
The precinct captain, perhaps in conjunction with the Judges of Election for that precinct, would obtain a blank ballot and mark it with black ink and then go about his business of knocking on the doors of the SRO’s residents to get them out to do their civic duty. The prospective voters would have only one responsibility, other than to hand the pre-marked ballot over to the Judge in charge of dropping it in the secured ballot box, thereby ensuring the integrity of the election. It would be his duty to return to the precinct captain one blank ballot which he would be given after he presented the Judges with his name and they certified his right to vote in that precinct in the election. The reward, other than taking pride in performing his civic duty, was a pint bottle of booze.
Now the city of Chicago, concerned that people voted in a conscientious and sober manner prohibited liquor stores, bars and restaurants from selling alcoholic beverages during the time the polls were open. So the precinct captains had to obtain the hootch in the days before the actual election. Rumor has it that there were quite a few liquor stores that did a land office business during that period and there was one incident reported where a precinct worker’s car was vandalized while the polls were open and a substantial amount of cheap alcohol was stolen from it. I never heard whether that precinct captain met his quota for getting out the vote that particular day.
Those who were all atwitter about the Florida “hanging chad” controversy, might have been interested to know that in the primitive days of paper ballots, we had our own controversies on how ballots were marked and whether those ballots were marked legally. According to the Cook County Board of Election Commissioners, a valid ballot was one in which the voter had made an “X” in the little square to the left of the candidate’s name. Some voters, unclear on the concept, circled the name, marked an “O” in the square or wrote the word “Yes” there or failed to have the lines of their “X” intersect – all of which were grounds for disqualifying that particular vote.
But we’ve come a long way from those days of marking an “X” to identify our choice of a candidate. The main theme of Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency next year will probably revolve around one issue – casting a ballot for an “XX” chromosome candidate. As Ms. Clinton put it recently in one of her rare public appearances, (oh, I forgot this was a speech for which she received a $250,000 honorarium to spout forty minutes worth of generalities), “Isn’t it time we elected a woman president?”
She and the American people would have been better served if she had said, “Isn’t it time we elected a competent person president?” That question, however, might not work well with her playbook.