Election Day History - by Kate Kelly
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Madison Square, New York City, 1888
Madison Square, New York 1888
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Election Day, A Holiday

Hearing the News

In the 19th and early 20th centuries people relished getting together on election day. Parades for the candidates could extend for miles, and crowds of 40-50,000 people would come to town for community barbecues and bonfires in celebration of voting day.

When it came to hearing the results of a presidential election, the news was slow and the process was often quite frustrating. Votes had to be counted by hand and then word had to travel by letter, by overland transport and by riverboat to let people know the news. Bad weather could delay travel, leaving newspaper editors without any news. As communication methods improved and there was hope of hearing news on election night, a new tradition emerged--people gathered together to hear the news.

  • In the early 20th century, the staff at the St. Louis Republic offered a specially fitted lantern to project the news onto a screen that was set up outside the newspaper office. These reports were supplemented by announcements made by megaphone. In 1916 when the vote was still uncertain at the end of the evening as to whether Charles Evans Hughes was going to triumph over President Wilson, the crowds that came Tuesday night came back again Wednesday and Thursday. About 10 p.m. Thursday a flash came from the Associated Press that Wilson had carried California, gaining the votes he needed to win. A bulletin was put in the window of the newspaper office and Old Glory was raised to help tell the news.

  • To amuse crowds waiting for returns, newspaper offices came up with various distractions. In 1920 crowds at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were entertained by movies, including a Charlie Chaplin movie and a never-before-seen-by-the-pubic motion picture made by “X-ray process” showing the movement of the knee cap when the knee is moved up and down.

  • In 1944 voting results were slowed because of the soldier vote. Though the absentee military votes were mailed in advance, they were counted last. If a soldier was killed between the casting and counting of his ballot, his vote was still considered valid.

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   © 2008 Kate Kelly