Designing democracy: A visual history of the ballot paper

Launched to coincide with the upcoming US election, The Cooper Union’s new exhibition explores design’s historic power of persuasion in how we choose to vote

“Ballots today may look boring and bureaucratic, but they are the most direct tool of participatory democracy,” says Alicia Cheng, founding partner of MGMT. Design and the Cooper Union’s 2019 Frank Stanton Chair for Graphic Design.

As the impending US election edges ever closer, the New York college is turning its attention to the country’s history of printed election ballots, or ‘fugitive ephemera’ – so called because they are legally required to be destroyed after use and any surviving pieces are typically rare.

Temperance tickets, Boston, c. 1876. All ballot images courtesy of American Antiquarian Society and California Historical Society

Presented by the college’s Herb Lubalin Study Centre of Design and Typography and curated by Cheng, the free exhibition features print reproductions of 26 individual ballots from the 19th century, taken from the curator’s recent book This is What Democracy Looked Like.

At the heart of the show is the notion that the electoral ballot is a symbol of the noble but often flawed process of US democracy, with its history tracing the growth of an evolving electorate but also electoral fraud and disenfranchisement.

Independent Greenback Ticket, presidential electors, Massachusetts, 1878

“From absentee votes to protest write-ins, ballots are a direct way for us to express ourselves as citizens, but historically there wasn’t any regulations for how a ballot looked or how it was produced,” Cheng explains.

“These visual artefacts demonstrate how voting has changed, helping us better understand how our struggle in making an imperfect system that is honest and fair might have evolved.”

People’s Party Ticket, 1884, Massachusetts

The 19th century marked a time of extreme partisanship in the US, which demanded adherence to a single party since voters were required to vote the full ticket. As a result, ballots were designed as much to be eye-catching propaganda as performing their practical function.

The featured designs depict how political parties used tactics such as coloured inks, paper stock or illustrations (which in some cases feature blatantly racist slogans) so that party members could easily track which votes were cast, and even practise voter suppression and intimidation.

Independent Taxpayers Union Ticket, California, 1871

By the early 20th century, however, a federally regulated ballot was introduced, leading to a design that is more familiar to US voters today. This new format isn’t without its problems either, with examples such as the infamous ‘hanging chad’ scandal still hanging over George Bush’s 2000 victory against Al Gore today.

While the ballot designs were originally intended to go on display in Cooper Union’s 41 Cooper Square Gallery, the ongoing coronavirus restrictions led the curators to move the show to the windows of its Foundation Building instead – a fitting use of a public space to remind voters of the power of design in the democratic process.

Regular Republican Ticket, Massachusetts, 1878

This is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot is on display at the Cooper Union until November 7;