Elections: Back to the Beginnings

TR Staff
Staff Writer

By Ellie Boese
Voting has been a long-established staple of America’s democracy. It’s been vital to our stability as a country to elect leaders who will serve the majority who elect them, as well as the minority who do not, fairly. Before the Revolutionary War, votes were commonly cast by voice, and more often than not at local carnivals, a gathering place for county populations. Writer Gil Troy wrote in an email to TIME magazine that as carnival reputations go, the crowds of people may not have been entirely sober when casting their voiced vote.
Voting was a very public ordeal, as the methods evolved to include a shared paper ballot on which voters would sign their name under their preferred candidates’ name. Though the system was more sound than drunken carnival-goers shouting out a candidate’s name as a vote, some people became uncomfortable having others knowing how they voted.
As government grew and parties chiseled their individual messages, printed ballots became more common. Voters would ballot/pamphlets from the party they aligned with and return the ballot to a box to be counted. The importance of secrecy of individual votes became increasingly important to constituents as politics grew divisive during the 19th century. When the Civil War ended, “vest-pocket” voting exploded in popularity, a method in which voters could keep their ballots in their pockets on the way to the polling place rather than displaying them in public. Privacy, writer Troy says, was largely up to individuals at that point, and also notes that a handful of liberals believed it was “manlier” to display one’s preferences proudly. (I don’t know about “manlier,” but I’m sure you have a neighbor or friend or house you’ve driven by that has five campaign signs on their lawn.)
By the late 1880s, written ballots were the most popular mode of voting, with officials and community members agreeing that voting privacy was an important part of the democratic process.
Voting played a significant role in the very fabric of Barnes County and Valley City. At the end of the year 1874, a popular vote was what changed the Northern Pacific Townsite’s name to Valley City. Democratic processes continued with votes for school funding, superintendents, county seat’s, and in 1889, North Dakota held its first statewide elections for Governor and U.S. Congress. At that time, Barnes County’s population was just over 7,000, with Valley City at about 1,000. In that election, candidates Henry Hansbrough (R) and Daniel Maratta (D) fought for the new state of North Dakota’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Barnes County voted 1,250–446 in favor of Hansbrough and the state did the same.
In 1889 Barnes County also voted in the majority of Republican Gubernatorial Candidate John Miller over Democrat William Roach, 1,191–498, sending Miller to the Capitol as the state’s first Governor. In 1890, at the same time the Valley City State Normal School was holding its first classes, John Holmes was elected Mayor of Valley City.
Fast forward to November 1914: The ND general election included 5 different measures. Every one of them passed except one. A measure for women’s suffrage was on the ballot, a measure that, if passed, would allow women the right to vote in all elections (minus the U.S. presidential elections).
The main issue? Only men had the right to vote at the time, which seems to have the potential to limit the support for a measure for women’s suffrage.
In the end, Barnes County matched the statewide voting results, 1,010 for and 1,172 against (ND voted 40,000 for 49,000 against).
Soon after in 1917, women were granted the right to vote, though limited to types of elections, by the North Dakota Legislature.
August 26, 1920: The 19th Amendment to the Constitution declared that for the first time women, like men, deserved all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, granting them the right to vote after a decades-long struggle.
Fred Fredrickson was re-elected Mayor in 1932 in the largest turnout in Valley City history. Of 5,200 residents, 2,355 cast their votes. Another record-breaking vote in Valley City took place in 1934 when 8,208 votes were cast in Barnes County.
Technology advances resulted in Valley City and Barnes County collaborating to purchase voting “Votomatic” machines in 1977.
Today, North Dakota sits in the midst of a stir in voter turnout. TargetSmart studied 2018 primary elections in 24 states and found that young voter turnout (18-29-year-olds) increased in states including North Dakota, experiencing a +6.9% change. In the 2016 presidential election, North Dakota turnout was 61.9%, 25th in the nation, far behind number 1 Minnesota with 74.8%.
Since 1873, probably far beyond that, the Barnes County area and state of North Dakota has used voting to decide a vast array of issues, from city name to state representative. No matter what happens on Nov. 6, 2018, we can say we followed our historical predecessors to cast our vote for those we feel can best advance our state and nation.
And (good news!) North Dakota has same-day registration that makes it entirely painless to vote on Election Day by walking up to your polling place with your license or official government ID and get a ballot.