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Houses Divided: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Political Landscape of 1858


The Polling Place

In 1858, elections were public events, with no secret balloting. A specific voting place was designated—generally, a room in a public building, or in a prominent private one, that had a single open window and space for the ballot box and tables for the judges of election. There were no voter registration lists and no party membership rolls. Voters were identified from census rolls or by face-to-face recognition as legitimate residents and citizens. If someone was challenged at the polling place by a judge of election or by a suspicious party poll-watcher, he swore an oath to his residency and citizenship, and then voted. The incidence of voter fraud reached as high as 10 percent of all votes cast.

Although today the term “ticket” is a metaphor for the list of candidates run by a political party, voters used actual tickets in 1858. Tickets with the names of the party’s candidates for that polling district, state legislative district, and U.S. congressional district were printed in advance. They were distributed by the candidates or party workers during the campaigns, or they were printed under the masthead of party newspapers and cut out by voters. They were handed in at the window at the polling place as ballots. Voters who chose not to vote for a party’s entire ticket could snip off the names of unwanted candidates.

Questions

  • What kinds of activities might have been taking place around the polling place in 1858?
  • How could voter fraud be detected?
  • Was voter fraud an important issue or merely a claim used to discredit the opposition?

Sources

A. Illinois newspaper masthead ticket, Quincy Daily Whig and Republican, Sept. 30, 1858.

B. Excerpt from “Preparing to Colonize,” Chicago Press and Tribune, Sept. 6, 1858.

C. Excerpt from “How to Vote for Lincoln,” Freeport Weekly Journal, Oct. 14, 1858.

D. Norman Judd to Elihu Washburne, Sept. 20, 1858, in Elihu Washburne Papers (Volume 4), Library of Congress.

E. Norman Judd to Elihu Washburne, Oct. 22, 1858, in Elihu Washburne Papers (Volume 4), Library of Congress.

F. Henry C. Whitney to Abraham Lincoln, Oct. 14, 1858, in Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.

G. Excerpt from “Illegal Voting—An Explanation,” Chicago Press and Tribune, Oc. 29, 1858.

H. Excerpt from “More Indications of Fraud,” Chicago Press and Tribune, Oct. 25, 1858.

I. Excerpt from “The Result in Peoria,” Peoria Daily Transcript, Nov. 4, 1858.