California Museum tells the story of Golden State voting
By Susan Laird, Village Life Newspaper
Aug. 8, 2016
If you think this year’s election cycle is wild and wooly, you ain’t seen nuthin’ ’til you see the featured exhibit at the California Museum in Sacramento.
A chronicle of over 165 years of the Golden State’s election history, the exhibit explores the evolution of how Californians vote. From campaign materials to ballots to voting booths to ballot boxes, there is a lot to unpack here. And I haven’t even mentioned the crazy things political parties did to influence the actual votes.
Power of the People: Voting in California 1850–2016 is an exhibit that was developed in partnership with Secretary of State Alex Padilla and the California State Archives. Its purpose is to educate and inspire Californians to vote on Nov. 8.
There is a lot to see in this fascinating display. Plan to spend at least an hour. Here’s why:
In the 1800s, sturdy metal or wood ballot boxes with multiple locks held the precious votes of California’s voting citizens. But would you believe that Californians actually cast their ballots into a transparent glass ballot bowl in 1884? It’s true. The glass ballot bowl was used so voters could see that no one had tampered with their ballots. It had an unfortunate downside, however. You could see the actual votes.
Well, you might have seen the votes in 1871, but you couldn’t see the ballot. The infamous “tapeworm ticket” ballot featured tiny, four-point type that voters simply couldn’t see. There was so little space between the lines on this ballot, produced by the Republican Party in Vallejo, that voters couldn’t write in any names other than those produced by the party.
The ensuing outcry resulted in a California law regulating the design and printing of ballots.
The first absentee ballots in California were for soldiers who left the Golden State to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Ballots for the presidential election of 1864 feature beautiful, patriotic engraving.
That election was critical for the Republican Party. The South lobbied heavily for the removal of President Abraham Lincoln. Consequently, absentee ballots were extremely important. This section of the exhibit, which tells the story of the “California 100,” is poignant and fascinating.
California’s involvement in the national debate on voter eligibility is well represented. From those who lobbied on behalf of women’s suffrage in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to bringing the voting age down to 18 in 1971. Colorful posters from the Vietnam War era bring history to life.
Concern over privacy in ballots and over their design led to another innovation: the voting booth.
On display are three voting booths: a lever voting machine from 1911 that was used in San Francisco for over 70 years (talk about environmental responsibility), a booth with a punch card system (hanging chads, anyone?) and a prototype voting machine.
The lever voting machine brings back fond memories for those old enough to remember the ratcheting sound they made as the curtains closed and opened. Voters pulled a large lever that drew the privacy curtains closed. Levers assigned to the candidates and issues were selected by the voter. Pulling the large lever again opened the curtain and registered the votes.
The prototype voting machine may interest visitors most. This machine, currently under development for Los Angeles County, offers multiple languages, an adjustable screen, Braille labels, audio, an option for hands-free ballot casting and more. When finished, the voter prints out the ballot.
This prototype may set an example for use statewide. Can it be hacked? That is an obvious concern as development moves forward.
Hundreds of artifacts on loan from the California State Archives, California State Library, Sacramento State, California State Parks and private collectors reveal that California voters have always held the power to shape the future.
Highlights include rare memorabilia from 19th century torchlight parades, souvenirs from “whistle stop” candidate train tours and ads created by Campaigns, Inc., America’s first political consulting firm established in California in the 1930s.
In addition, interactive stations allow visitors opportunities to register to vote, to “vote” on which issues matter most to them in this election season and to discover which presidential candidate best matches their views.
Power of the People: Voting in California 1850–2016 runs through Nov. 13.
The California Museum is located at 1020 O St. in Sacramento. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, closedMonday. Admission is $9 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and students with ID, $6.50 for youth ages six to 17, and free for children ages five and younger.
During the week, metered street parking is available. Hourly parking garages are located at 10th Street between P and O streets, as well as between L and K streets.
Free parking can be found across the street from the museum on weekends.