"The Australian System"

February 22, 1890

Charles G. Bush

"The Australian System"

Voting, Ballot Reform;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Heeler. "How much d'ye ax, For, ter taich me frind here ter read jist three wurrads?"

Professor. "Why only three words?"

Heeler. "Well, ye see, Sor, if they're goin' to wurruk this Owstralinn ballit reform racket, I want me frind here to be dead sure of three wurruds, Dem., Rep., and Prohib. It's meself as kin attind to the rest av the taichin'."

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by C. G. Bush envisions how the deputies of machine politicians might try to circumvent the new Australian (or secret) ballot law.

Elections in the English colonies of America were public events in which each voter declared his choice by voice.  In the early national and antebellum years of the American republic, voting by voice gave way to placing paper ballots in a box or other receptacle.  The process, however, was still a public one.  As the political party system developed, ballots were printed by each party, listed only its slate of candidates, and were acquired from local party headquarters or clipped from a partisan newspaper.  The ballots usually featured party symbols, for the illiterate to identify their party, and were sometimes colored to distinguish them further from tickets of the other parties.  Each voter would place his party ballot in a voting box, sometimes made of glass, in public view.  A few states, though, did enact regulations requiring ballots to be white or to be folded into envelops.

Reformers believed that the party-ticket system of voting encouraged fraud, such as ballot stuffing, and partisan intimidation.  In the 1850s, Australia began to use a uniform ballot which was printed by the government at public expense, listed the eligible candidates of all parties, and was cast in secret.  In the 1880s, states and territories in the United States began to enact secret ballot laws based on the Australian system.  

Vote fraud and intimidation continued, however, because the main causes were the human inclination to cheat and a lack of effective election administration, not so much the type of ballot or voting.  The secret ballot was accompanied by state legislation which made it more difficult to register to vote and for parties to be placed on the ballot.  These and similar laws were one factor which led to a decline in the number of registered voters, in the number of voters casting ballots, in the frequency of straight-party voting, and in the importance of minor parties.  Whereas approximately 80% of the eligible voters had cast ballots in national contest in the 1880s, only 60-65% did so three decades later, with the downward trend continuing to the present.

In this cartoon, the ward heeler, identified as an Irish American by his dialect, brings one of his poor, illiterate constituents to a private tutor so that the voter can learn merely to identify the names of the three parties--Republican, Democrat, and Prohibition--and therefore cast his ballot as the ward heeler instructs him.

Robert C. Kennedy

"The Australian System"
February 22, 2024

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