Pulling the Curtain

A History of US Elections

A poster used to train voters on new balloting technology (1972)

Elections are at the very foundation of our democracy. But voter turnout in the last presidential election was only 57.37%. Which has us wondering – do elections mean as much as they used to?

With anxieties about the possibility of voter suppression in some electoral districts this year, we’re looking at who was allowed (and encouraged) to vote in the nation’s early years. We’ll also explore the roots of the electoral college, and look at why Southern segregationists in the 1960s fought a proposal to do away with that method of counting votes.

And, as always, we’ll take your calls. What questions do you have for the History Guys? Does voting mean something different to you and your parents? Do you have a good election day story? Ever voted for a third party candidate? Let us know below!


Comments (6)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Kramer McLuckie

    I remember hearing in my high school US History class that in some of the United States’ earliest elections at the beginning of the 19th century, some wealthy women, particularly the widows of wealthy landowners, were able to vote, either under their husbands’ names or even their own in some cases. Is this true? Was it prevalent? When in the 19th century did women voting become more formally disallowed?

  2. Ken McFadyen

    When I was in college, I agreed to campaign for candidates outside polling places on two different November election days. Standing in the cold air all day aside, I learned my lesson after two experiences not to do that anymore! Voters who I encountered reacted in one of two ways- with indifference or borderline hostility.

    Has there been any discernible change in how volunteers have campaigned for their candidates from the beginning of American elections to today?

  3. Steve West

    I’m sorry I missed the deadline for The Electoral Slide edition (and I haven’t yet heard the episode), but I am curious as to why we can no longer vote a president in for more than 2 terms. I can’t see the term limits as anything but antithetical to a principaled democracy. I say this even though the consequences of returning to our pre-term limit status would not always find my favor; I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t. But it’s not about me, and a term limit seems a fundemental evisceration of the democratic process; our freedom to choose who will lead, or continue to lead, our country. If the majority of voters are happy with the incumbent, why are we denied the right to keep him or her at the helm? And, why hasn’t the Supreme Court found term limits unconstitutional?

  4. Brian Parkinson

    How important was the Constitution’s “Three-Fifths Clause” to the outcome of pre-Civil War presidential elections? After the Civil War, what happened to the Clause and who benefited from its demise?

  5. Sandra Wilcoxon

    This is an excerpt of my great-great-grandfather’s journals (Harvest Journal: Memoir of a Minnesota Farmer) He recorded an “everyman’s” perspective of history, including politics, education, war, bank failures, etc. Part 1 is perfect for your 19th Century Guy, and Part 2 for early 20th Century events! Love your show!


    General Grant was nominated for president in 1868, but politics became a humbug. Our Congress had been at work since the first of March trying to impeach the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson. They squandered time and money without stint and acquitted the vilest man that ever wielded the scepter of authority in our land. Not only was it reported that he appeared intoxicated at the inauguration ceremony after Lincoln’s assassination years before, but he pardoned many of his wealthy confederate friends after the war. Then he insisted on battling Congress over reconstruction plans and twice dismissed the secretary of war. He was acquitted by one vote only, which voter would have served the country better had he been home ill that day.

    Johnson lost the Democratic nomination, and Seymore of New York announced he was running against Grant for the presidency. The state of our nation was very critical at that time–if we were to believe the papers, we came very near having another war. Of course, the usual amount of lying and blackguard went on that attends a presidential campaign. It was time such lying and tomfoolery were done away with.

    The third day of November was our national presidential election. I took a day away from my work to ride to Carimona, fourteen miles away, and cast my first vote for General Grant, who was elected by about two-thirds of the legal votes of the land.

    – Frederick C. Cummings, c. 1868