How Did They Vote?
The Process of Voting in the Early Republic
Voting in the modern United States looks very different than it did during the country’s early years. The women and men who voted in New Jersey between 1800 and 1807, participated in a democratic process based on British and American precedents. Voting in the new United States generally increased the American people’s participation in various levels of government, but also continued discriminatory policies and led to extreme partisanship. Each state had its own voting laws and elections had less regulation than they do today. New Jersey’s diverse voters, in particular, broke new ground and helped define the relationship between “We the People” and their local, state, and national governments.
The New Jersey voters recorded on the recently discovered poll lists voted by secret ballot in the township in which they lived. That means they went to a designated polling place (often a prominent tavern) on the day or days set aside for an election, and either brought with them or filled out a slip of paper with the names of the candidates of their choosing or their response to a referendum, and placed the slip of paper in a ballot box.
According to New Jersey law, ballot boxes were to be strongly built and feature locks to preserve secrecy and prevent tampering. An election official, such as a clerk or poll inspector, also recorded each voter’s name on a paper poll list, which was kept as part of the township record. Once all the votes were counted, the town clerk or collector counted the number of ballots in the ballot box against the number of names recorded on the poll list. If more ballots were counted than there were names on the poll list, only the total number of votes recorded on the poll list would be counted. A similar process of voting by secret ballot was done in all of the new United States.
Unlike today, there was no formal way to register to vote prior to an election in the Early Republic. Instead, voters had to swear an oath or affirm that they met the voter eligibility requirements prior to casting their ballots. In New Jersey, between 1776 and 1807, that meant swearing you were at least 21 years of age, an inhabitant of the town or township in which you voted, and the owner of at least 50 pounds worth of property. Since voting took place locally, voters could potentially be called out for not meeting the requirements and there are a number of court cases about voter fraud during this period. Election officials, who were often prominent members of their community, also became de facto authorities on deciding who could and could not vote.
In 1807, politicians charged that New Jersey’s inclusive voter laws encouraged illegal voting by unpropertied women and enslaved people. By unanimous vote, the state legislature adopted a new law stripping the vote from all women, “persons of color," and immigrants, but expanded the vote to include all white male taxpayers. Generations since have fought to continue expanding the vote and recover those lost voting rights.