Back in the 19th century, election day in America worked differently than it does now—there was even more drama, if you can believe that in 2016. There were no official ballots; political parties would print their own “party tickets.” Some states had standardized printing rules, but in some places voters could write down the names of whoever they wanted to vote for a hand that piece of paper in. Kentucky voted by voice almost to the end of the 1800s.
When parties printed up their tickets, each ballot listed the party’s candidates for all the seats at stake. Most voters accepted the pre-selected slate, rather than the candidates that most impressed them. There were measures one could take against an undesirable candidate, though, like physically cutting his name out of the party ticket.
Since the 1850s, Australian states had been pioneering a different method of electing leaders—they let people vote in secret. This system used official ballots and provided space for people to vote without anyone knowing who they had chosen. With no way of verifying who a voter had actually cast his ballot for, parties had less power to coerce or bribe people to choose their slate. After the close and contentious election of 1884, when Grover Cleveland won New York—then allocated the most electoral votes of any state—by just over 1,000 votes, American states started seeing the appeal. In 1888, Massachusetts was the first state to adopt the “Australian ballot” system, but it was followed quickly by Indiana, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Minnesota, Washington, New York, and other states across the country.