A Transparent Approach in the 19th Century Let Voters Know Their Ballots Were Counted
…The hyped-up panic over voter fraud is nothing new, despite what headlines might lead people to believe… But while fraudulent voting has been found to be quite rare, perhaps one of the most innovative ways to safeguard against it while also maintaining a sense of transparency came about more than a century ago.
On October 5, 1858, a New Yorker by the name of Samuel C. Jollie, filed a patent (number 21,684) for a ballot box containing “a glass globe mounted in a frame.” According to the patent’s literature, it was constructed in such a way “that bystanders may see every ballot, which is put in, and see them when taken out,” leaving little if any opportunity for erroneous voting.
Jollie’s invention was the result of a case of fraudulent voting—specifically ballot stuffing—that occurred two years prior in 1856. The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, a vigilante group comprised of local citizens, discovered a ballot box with a false bottom that was being used for illegally stuffing votes. The public outcry was swift, and voters feared that democracy was in jeopardy. Sensing an opportunity, Jollie created a glass ballot jar that would make it obvious if anyone tried to commit voter fraud.
By the 1860s, glass ballot boxes had become an election staple, thanks to their transparency, which allowed voters to see their ballots once they had dropped them inside the box.
“The idea was that voters would take their printed ballots and drop them into the glass box, which gave them a sense of what was going in,” says Harry Rubenstein, curator emeritus of political history at the Smithsonian’s National
Museum of American History.
“From a visual sense, it showed them that they weren’t putting [their ballots] into some place dark. It was the psychological idea of publicly voting, and that your vote is going in and there was no opportunity for cheating.” . . .