Yesterday was Maryland’s primary election. It was held in June rather than September, somewhat earlier in the year than we’re used to; despite some heated campaign rhetoric and an astonishingly large amount of pre-election mail – seemingly indicative of an exciting race and interested voters – it was greeted with low turnout. When I rolled up to the polls in the morning, the electronic voting system wasn’t working; the beleaguered election judges had to instruct me, and the other two (!) people there, on using the provisional – a.k.a. paper – ballots. (And they did a great job; all respect to election judges!)
I enjoy voting in all its forms, but there’s something unsatisfying about simply filling in a little circle with a golf pencil. We have a variety of election and voting materials in the collections here, and when I got in to work I pulled up the catalog record for this fine item: A stack of paper ballots from the Montgomery County Democratic Primary of May 6, 1940.
The ballots measure 5″ x 3″ when folded (the stack is 2″ tall) and they’re printed with “Democratic Primary – Official Ballot for Montgomery County Election, May 6th, 1940. [printed signature] Donald Bowie, Jr., President of the Board of Supervisors of Elections for Montgomery County.” Each was initialed by the judge, in this case an as-yet unidentified M.R.L.
There’s not much to the ballot, option-wise – the only question asked is about the Democratic nomination for the Senate – but the voter indicated his or her choice with a nice definitive X (so satisfying!) before placing the folded ballot into the designated box. It looks like they were stuck onto a spike during the counting process; at some point this set of ballots was wired together and, deliberately or inadvertently, saved for posterity. Unfortunately this is one of those items donated to us many decades ago, when my earnest volunteer predecessors were, ah, somewhat inconsistent in their recording. I do not know who donated them, or why this particular group of 200-odd ballots are wired together.
The 1940 Maryland primary was in some ways similar to the one that just occurred. There were a few contentious races, with members of the same party sniping at each other about policies and experience. There was also a rather low turnout, with just over half of Maryland’s 800,000 registered voters stepping out to the polls. The Montgomery County House of Representatives Democratic candidate ran unopposed (perhaps that’s why only the Senate appears on the ballot? Queen Anne’s County voters, for example, had more questions to answer that May), and the Senate race was really between Howard Bruce and the incumbent, George L. Radcliffe, with your man Vincent F. Gierttoski a barely-mentioned third. In the month leading up to the election, Bruce argued that Radcliffe was too quiet, “chid[ing] him for making only one speech in the Upper House in five and a half years” (Washington Post, May 7, 1940), and the candidates jostled for endorsements from their Democratic colleagues in the state and national legislature. The Washington Post ended a May 6 article on the “lackadaisical” campaign with this tidbit:
A comical note was struck in Rockville, seat of Montgomery County. When Bruce headquarters put up a large banner reading ‘Democratic Headquarters,’ the Radcliffe followers next door posted a sign reading ‘Democratic Headquarters – Main Entrance.’
In the end, although Montgomery County Democrats gave Bruce a narrow margin here, Radcliffe won the statewide nomination and went on to serve his second term in the Senate. He lost the nomination in 1946, and retired from politics.
Interestingly, the 1940 election may have been the last time Montgomery County voters used these simple paper ballots. A photo series by Marjory Collins, now in the Library of Congress (FSA/OWI collections), shows Olney voters in the 1942 general election; in the picture below, a voter is being shown how to use an automatic voting machine (the actual voting went on behind the curtains at left, don’t worry).