History Column: Reflections on voting, then and now
We are at the 100th anniversary of the final ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Minnesota, including Becker County, ratified the amendment one year earlier, making us not at all the first, but also not the last, to do so.
From wooden ballot boxes to passed hats to raised hands to polling stations, voting methods in America have changed quite a bit over the years. In fact, the very idea of the existence of voting has changed quite a bit.
We vote on a lot of things today, from school board to township to state to national elections. Board meetings function on a bunch of "Ayes" and "Nays" spoken out loud around a table. Public elections are by and large conducted via secret ballot. Those of us who have been voting for a while have seen the big machines with the punch cards and the electronic scanners that read filled-in dots. Those even older have maybe seen wooden ballot boxes that hold handwritten slips of paper.
We are at the 100th anniversary of the final ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote (white women, that is -- the same voting restrictions that hindered the ability of non-white men to vote now also applied to non-white women).
Minnesota, including Becker County, ratified the amendment one year earlier, making us not at all the first, but also not the last, to do so. I won’t go into all the dates here, as that can be found readily on your own. Here is one good timeline you may want to check out.
No matter the method or physics of voting, an overriding goal of elections is that they be fair. Fairness is usually measured on a couple simple points: 1) Every person gets one vote, and; 2) Every vote is counted.
In elementary school, we all knew of some kid trying to “stuff the ballot box,” and we remember being taught about that. Even today, some “elections” accept this tactic as a way of encouraging enthusiasm among voters. Think of those call-in contests, for example, that allow people to make multiple calls to cast multiple votes: The more enthusiastic supporters give their cause or contestant a leg up over those whose supporters only vote once.
For our government, however, we use a system of one vote per person. We don’t like stuffed ballot boxes. This puts a bit of a burden on anyone who helps manage voting and elections, as suddenly questions like whether a “hanging chad” (an incompletely punched hole on a ballot) counts or not become hot topics.
For most of my adult life, I've been voting in person, which means visiting my local polling place to personally fill out and submit my completed ballot. Alongside of that, there's been absentee voting, which used to be primarily for people who knew they weren't going to be home on Election Day. Absentee strives to maintain the one person, one vote system by forcing the voter to request a ballot, fill in that ballot and then return it. At each stage, the party on the other end is expecting one ballot, and it can be verified as such. I learned about it when I was quite young, from my parents and at school.
As we move through history, we find ourselves now in a time of convenience. We like things to be easy, and we have many good modern tools to do things with ease. But things have to be safe, too. One of the mantras of history-keepers and teachers is, “History repeats itself, and we study it to prevent repeating the bad parts."
As history literally writes itself around us today, we are in the midst of great debate about non-in-person voting methods. I like looking at things with common sense and an understanding of history. We have a long history of success with absentee ballots. Mail-in ballots can be tricky. We know voter rolls are not accurate. I have stood in line myself and had to make corrections for inaccurate information about me. Signature verification is supposed to solve questions of authenticity, but I know from writing and cashing checks all my life that that does not work. So, with history in mind and all those elementary kids and that ballot box, I have concerns.
What history teaches us in general about voting is that, since we are working with humans, if we put a weakness in a system, it will be exploited. If you can stuff the ballot box in school, some kids will.
I can’t wait for us to look back on the beginning of online voting via a website. That will bring its own set of challenges, or possibly greater security. It’s all in the details, I guess.
So while we celebrate the 19th Amendment, remember to vote. And while you're in that frame of mind, make an appointment to see the Women's Suffrage exhibit at the Becker County Museum. Check out the long path we took to get women the vote.
This column is a regular feature of the Tribune's monthly History page. Kevin Mitchell may be reached at the Becker County Museum by calling 847-2938.