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1912 Ballot Box, Chicago

Voting in the nineteenth century was very different from today. Instead of polling places being located in well-ordered settings like schools, churches or town halls, ballots were cast at fire stations, livery stables, and saloons—public places where no “respectable lady” would ever dare venture. Election days were rowdy and chaotic affairs, often featuring copious amounts of alcohol and incidents of physical intimidation, if not outright violence. Because there were no official ballots, voters used party tickets supplied by political parties, which made their political allegiance quite clear to the assembled crowd. No wonder women’s demand for the vote was so hard to process—it literally struck at the core of 19th century male political culture.

Starting in 1888, states and localities across the country began to adopt the Australian or secret ballot, an electoral reform which helped pave the way for women to exercise the franchise. In what was known as partial suffrage, women initially won the right to vote in local contests, usually school board or municipal elections, but they were still shut out of most state and national elections.

This ballot box is from fairly late in the suffrage struggle. Its markings confirm that it was used in the April 9, 1912 primary referendum in Cook County, Illinois about “extending suffrage to women.” Chicago’s male voters failed to pass the non-binding referendum but the next year the Illinois legislature granted presidential suffrage to women voters throughout the state.