This is What Democracy Looked Like

Mon, Oct 19, 2020 12pm - Sat, Nov 7, 2020 12pm

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Sample historical ballots, including South Division ballot for Democratic presidential electors (1864), Regular Republican Ticket, MA (1878), Independent Greenback Ticket, MA (1878), and Independent Taxpayers Union Ticket, CA (1871).

Sample historical ballots, including South Division ballot for Democratic presidential electors (1864), Regular Republican Ticket, MA (1878), Independent Greenback Ticket, MA (1878), and Independent Taxpayers Union Ticket, CA (1871).

“This is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot,” a new exhibition in the colonnade windows of the Foundation Building, showcases historical election ballots, or what some have called “fugitive ephemera.” (Printed ballots in the United States are legally required to be destroyed so surviving pieces are rare—and perhaps prohibited.) The exhibition highlights how the visual history of the printed ballot illuminates the noble, but often flawed process at the heart of US democracy. Presented by Cooper’s Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, “This is What Democracy Looked Like” features print reproductions of 26 individual ballots from the nineteenth century, culled from curator Alicia Cheng’s recent book of the same name. 

Can't visit the Foundation Building? See the full exhibition online.

Colonnade windows
Colonnade windows (click to view gallery)

The 26 historical ballots on view offer insight into a pivotal time in American history, tracing the explosive growth of an  evolving electorate as well as a legacy of electoral fraud and disenfranchisement. Before the 20th century there  was no federal oversight for the election ballot. In fact, the parties paid to produce, print, and distribute their own ballots. It was a time of extreme partisanship that demanded adherence to a single party since voters were required to vote the full ticket, so ballots were designed to be eye-catching propaganda. Parties used colored inks, paper stock or illustrations (in some cases blatantly racist and xenophobic slogans) explicitly so party members could easily track which votes were cast, evidence of early methods of voter suppression and intimidation. By the early 20th century, a federally regulated ballot was introduced, leading to a design more familiar to us today. This new format is obviously fraught with problems that continue now, such confusion of what to mark or where to mark (think of this century’s infamous “hanging chad”).

Register for the panel in conjunction with the exhibition featuring Samantha Bee, Zephyr Teachout, Victoria Bassetti, and curator Alicia Cheng.

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  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.