Segment from Pulling the Curtain

Voice Over

Peter tells us how it used to be: Our votes were more heard than seen back when we declared publicly how we were voting in front of a crowd at the court house.

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ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory. with the American Backstory hosts.


BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th-century guy, here with Ed Ayers–

ED: 19th-century guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf–

PETER: 18th-century guy.

BRIAN: We thought November was never going to get here. I mean, almost two years of campaigning, debating, poll watching, horse racing, all that stuff. And after all that, we’re left with this odd phenomenon– the undecided voter. Ed, how can anybody be undecided right now?

ED: That’s a good question, Brian, because speaking historically, it’s really hard to understand how somebody could be undecided. Now, I hope our undecided voters out there won’t take it personally. But historians are confused by that concept because for a long time in American history, to be an undecided voter is an oxymoronic statement. If you were going to be a voter, you were decided.

And in colonial America, you made your choice and you stuck with it. Isn’t that right, Peter?

PETER: You’re absolutely right, Ed. Let’s put ourselves in the picture. We’re in Virginia. It’s one of those elections for the House of Burgesses. And remember now, there weren’t many elective offices in colonial Virginia. It was the big one. Who are two guys going to be that we’re going to send down to Williamsburg to represent our county? And I emphasize county because there’s one place to vote. That’s the county courthouse.

Understand, courthouse is where you go to smoke, drink, and be rowdy. And elections are a public event. A little noise, please. Let’s have some over-talking because it’s loud here at the county courthouse.

ED: I can’t hear you, Peter.

PETER: Well, people have gathered around. And we got a couple of candidates in there, standing up there.

MALE SPEAKER: Hear ye, hear ye.

PETER: Voters are gonna come. They are going to publicly declare for whom they are voting in front of the entire rowdy crowd.

ED: So everyone knows how you voted.

PETER: Yeah, they know where you stand. That’s right. You go up there, and you declare who you’re for. Then the county clerk is going to say, so-and-so votes for so-and-so. And then very frequently, that candidate is going to step up and say, why, I thank you for voting for me, sir. And then, perhaps, there’d be some treating. You know what treating is, guys. It’s when the candidates pass out the booze. In other words, you’re not doing this kind of silent thing where you’re going into some kind of penitential booth where you and your God and your candidate get together and decide who’s going to win. No, you’re out there in public. It’s a very public thing, and it is loud.

BRIAN: Oh, well, each week on BackStory, we rip a topic from the headlines and explore that topic through American history. This week, in case you haven’t already guessed it, our topic is voting.

ED: We’re gonna spend the rest of the hour ticking through some of the major issues involved with voting today and figure out how they came to be.

BRIAN: We got early cases of voter fraud, stories of an early American voting bloc– that would be non-US citizens– and we will try our best to explain the God forsaken electoral college.