Jim Madison Sez….

I’m finding the history of voting in the U.S. to be a fascinating narrative. The reason I’m delving into it, by the way, is because I’m surprised at how many reputable, thoughtful people and organizations actually want to do away with the ballot. Apparently, many people believe that the lack of accountability and the implied corruption of the process have totally discredited the “art of Electioneering”, as James Madison referred to it. But, in a letter to Caleb Wallace, in 1785, Madison said this:

“…as to the mode of suffrage I lean strongly to that of the ballott, notwithstanding the objections which be against it. It appears to me to be the only radical cure for those arts of Electioneering which poison the very fountain of Liberty. The States in which the Ballott has been the Standing mode are the only instances in which elections are tolerably chaste and those arts in disgrace. If it should be thought improper to fix this mode by the constitution I should think it at least necessary to avoid any constitutional bar to a future adoption of it.” (Excerpt of a letter from James Madison to Caleb Wallace. August 23, 1785; from “The Papers of James Madison”, Digital Edition, University of Virginia)

In other words, the “Father of our Constitution” felt that, despite the flaws of ballot-based voting, it avoided the flaws of all other methods.

The history of voting is replete with stories of ingenuity, resourcefulness – and, of course, fraud. There’s also some humor. For example, in democratic Greece, voting was done via “ballots” that were made of broken shards of pottery, called ostrako. A Wikipedia article explains that voters used these shards because paper was too expensive – but broken pottery was everywhere. The main use of these ostrako arose when voters wanted to banish citizens – or “ostracize” them. (What a terrific word origin).  At one of these numerous votes in Greece, an illiterate man approached Aristides, “the Just” and asked for help in inscribing the name of a person he wanted to have banished. Aristides agreed and asked for the name. “Aristides”, came the man’s answer. When Aristides asked why, the man replied that he was sick of hearing Aristides being referred to as “The Just.”

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