October 23, 2020
The upcoming election has sparked me to consider my ancestors’ politics. What parties did they belong to? How did they vote in the elections of their day? Voting records are one way to find some answers to these question, but they are often difficult to find and sometimes no longer exist. However, once in awhile even our own memories can give us a view into how our more recent ancestors looked at voting.
One of my earlier memories deals with my paternal grandfather, Victor Fernelius, and his way of voting. I believe that the election I remember is the presidential election of 1952 when Dwight D. Eisenhower ran against Adlai Stevenson. I was almost five years old that year and paid no attention whatsoever to elections, but I did like to take rides in the car with my dad and grandfather, so I’m sure that’s how I ended up in the car with them the day my dad took Grandpa to vote. At that time, my grandfather was nearly 80 years old and no longer drove. My family lived across the road from my grandparents and took them wherever they needed to go, mostly to the grocery store and to church and to do things like vote. My dad was the kind of man who explained things to his children, and I’m sure he explained that we were going to the local LDS Wardhouse to vote. In our small town, almost everything revolved around the local church, so that was the our polling place most years, although I have no particular memory of the polling place that year. Nor can I remember anything about actually going inside to vote. I’m not sure that my dad even voted at that time; he and my mother may have gone earlier or later. My dad may have just driven Grandpa to vote. All I can remember is being in the car when Grandpa returned and got into the front seat. As he settled in, my dad teased him about the way he voted, saying “Did you mark your usual tick?” My dad wasn’t mean about it, but he did like to tease. I think my grandfather usually just ignored it, but this time he became very dignified and said, “Of course, I did. That’s how I vote.”
Dad wouldn’t let the subject drop and continued to tease by reminding Grandpa that you didn’t need to vote the way he did. Mostly, for my benefit I think, Dad explained that you could vote by making a tick at the top of the ballot which meant that you voted for everyone below that tick, who were all from the same party. If you didn’t want to vote for everyone from the same party, you could “split” your ticket and vote for each candidate separately even if they were from different parties. My grandfather got a little indignant and said he had always voted straight Democrat and always would.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the difference between voting a straight ticket and voting a split ticket. Nowadays, only a few states even offer a straight ticket ballot where one mark is sufficient to vote for every partisan race on the ballot. If people nowadays want to vote for a single party, they still have to vote for candidates for each office individually. Up until about the 1950s straight ticket voting was very popular; in fact, in many areas, separate ballots for each party were printed on different colored paper so that you could request a ballot for a specific party which would be a different color than the ballot for the other party. In those less literate times, it may have been a way to make voting simpler.
My dad was always proud of the fact that he often split his vote between different parties, but I don’t think my grandfather ever did. He was proud of always voting straight ticket, even up until 1952, which may have been the last election he ever voted in since he died a few years later. I suspect his brothers and cousins and his father and his uncle all did the same. My grandfather died when I was still young, and I have few memories of him as a person, but his straight ticket vote in 1952 reminds me that he was once a man who believed in certain ways of behaving, even when it came to voting. He was more than just a name on a pedigree chart, and because of my memory of him, I even researched and learned a little bit about how people used to vote.
Researcher/Director at Large