'This is What Democracy Looked Like' is a new exhibition in the colonnade windows of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art's historic Foundation Building, showcasing 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 free 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 The Cooper Union's Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, this exhibition features print reproductions of 26 individual ballots from the nineteenth century, culled from curator Alicia Cheng's recent book of the same name.
"Ballots today may look boring and bureaucratic, but they are the most direct tool of participatory democracy," said curator Alicia Cheng. "The act of voting is a critical part of our civic discourse. From absentee votes to protest write-ins, ballots are a direct way for us to express ourselves as citizens. But historically there wasn't any regulations for how a ballot looked or how it was produced. These visual artifacts demonstrate how voting has changed, helping us better understand how our struggle in making an imperfect system that is honest and fair might have evolved."
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.
"These artifacts are an incredible reminder of the power of design in our civic process," remarked Alexander Tochilovsky, curator of Cooper Union's Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography. "We originally planned to mount this exhibition inside our 41 Cooper Square Gallery, but due to continued limits on gatherings during the pandemic, we moved it to the Foundation Building windows and a public space since now more than ever it is important to remind everyone of the power of the ballot."
The exhibition will be on view from October 19, 2020 through November 7, 2020 on the Foundation Building's Fourth Avenue side.
Photos: Courtesy of Cooper Union