The Acme of Reform
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the electorate of the United States roughly doubled. Immigrants flocked to the nation's cities, and women in the western territories received the right to vote. Election officials worried that such large numbers of votes would make voting fraud easier. They looked for a solution in the introduction of the Australian or blanket ballot and in new ballot counting machines.
The printing and distribution of blanket ballots, like the provision of mechanical ballot boxes, became functions of government rather than competing parties. Innovations in ballot box design were intended to insure an
honest vote.

Political manipulation and election fraud were often compared to a well-oiled machine. Reformers resolved to fight political machines with ballot reform and voting machines.

Hester Street

In 1899 Hester Street, on New York City's Lower East Side, was one of the most densely populated districts in the world. The flow of immigrants into the United States swelled during the 19th century. Early on, England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia supplied the majority of immigrants. By the 1880s, they increasingly came from central and southern Europe. By 1907, immigrants from Italy, Russia, and Austria-Hungary accounted for 75 percent of new arrivals. By 1910, the majority of residents in America's largest cities were foreign-born or children of immigrants.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

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Photo of Tammany hall illustration
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Tammany Hall illustration

The Tammany Society was formed in 1789 to resist aristocratic political organization. By the 1860s, New York's Tammany Hall had become the most notorious political machine in America. Led by Mayor William Marcy "Boss" Tweed from 1867 to 1871, Tammany based its power on patronage, payoffs, and the predictable outcome of elections in which violence and intimidation were the norm. In this 1887 election scene from Leslie's, two Tammany operatives attempt to reclaim their street booth from a surprise attack.

Tammany bank

This 1873 mechanical "Tammany Bank" caricatures the workings of the political machine of New York's "Boss" Tweed. The coin in his hand goes in his pocket. Reformers determined to fight political machines with voting machines.

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Photo of Republican poll watcher badge
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Republican poll watcher badge

The parties employed poll watchers to observe Election Day voting procedures. This New York poll watcher's badge is from 1910.

Leslie's magazine cover

Leslie's "The Man Who Will Elect the Next President" pictures an upwardly mobile workingman contemplating a blanket ballot on Election Day, 1912.

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Photo of Acme voting machine
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Acme voting machine

Innovations in ballot box design were intended to ensure an honest vote. The Acme, an improvement upon the open-slot box, has a tabulator activated by a lever mechanism that releases the ballot into the box. The Acme was manufactured in Bridgewater, Connecticut,
about 1880.

Voting instructions poster

Prominently placed in the voting booth, ballot marking instructions helped voters make their votes count. This poster was used in Cleveland, Ohio, in the election of 1936.

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Photo of Blanket ballot
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Photo of Ballot circular
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Blanket Ballot


Ballot Circular

Developed in South Australia in the 1850s, the blanket ballot—listing all candidates for office regardless of party—was gradually adopted in the United States after 1888. The voter marked the ballot in the privacy of a voting booth, sometimes guided by party symbols—like this eagle guarding the ballot box.

Ballot markers

Blanket ballots and voting booths made voting more private because observers could not see which party a voter was supporting. Handwritten or hand-marked paper ballots not counted by machines are used in 1.5 percent of the United States today. These crayon ballot markers
date to 1908.

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Photo of Ballot without party symbols, Upton, Massachusetts
Enlarge photo of Ballot without party symbols, Upton, Massachusetts

Ballot without party symbols, Upton, Massachusetts

Reformers held that the absence of party
symbols, as on this 1908 Massachusetts ballot, prevented full participation by turning voting into a literacy test.