Many women in early years had separate ballots. Some were pink.

  • When voting in 1920, women had separate ballots in many jurisdictions -- like this pink one from Evanston.

      When voting in 1920, women had separate ballots in many jurisdictions -- like this pink one from Evanston. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • When voting during the era of the women's suffrage movement, electors placed their completed ballots in sturdy ballot boxes such as this one on display at the Lombard Historical Society.

      When voting during the era of the women's suffrage movement, electors placed their completed ballots in sturdy ballot boxes such as this one on display at the Lombard Historical Society. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Karen Yarbrough is Cook County's first African American and female clerk. She says the slow progress of the women's suffrage movement shows the importance of working together to make positive change.

    Karen Yarbrough is Cook County's first African American and female clerk. She says the slow progress of the women's suffrage movement shows the importance of working together to make positive change. Courtesy of Cook County Clerk's Office

 
 
Updated 8/22/2020 5:23 PM

When women gained the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, they were given separate ballots. Some of them were pink.

But their experience going to the polls 100 years ago is, in several ways, still akin to the voting process these days -- pre-pandemic, at least.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Voting took place on Election Day, usually at post offices or local grocery stores that doubled as post offices. Election judges kept watch over the process. Votes were counted, sanctioned and then filed at county seats. Results were made public.

"That's essentially the sort of template that has been standard" for voting throughout the past century, said Jeanne Schultz Angel, director of learning experiences and historical research at the Naper Settlement museum in Naperville and an Illinois Humanities Road Scholar with expertise in the suffrage movement.

The biggest changes have been the shift from paper ballots to electronic versions in some areas or the addition of sophisticated tabulation systems and online results databases, said Zach Bishop, curator at the DuPage County Historical Museum in Wheaton.

The process of voting, he said, is "not entirely too different than it is today, except for technology."

The voting technology of 100 years ago included paper ballots imprinted with candidate names and races, with sturdy ballot boxes to receive the completed forms. Exhibits at the Naper Settlement, the Lombard Historical Society and the Evanston History Center all include either historical ballots or ballot boxes. Lori Osborne, director of the Evanston Women's History Project, gets a kick out of the appearance of a ballot from 1920 that her museum's exhibit, "Evanston Women and the Fight for the Vote," has on hand.

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"It's pink, by the way," Osborne said. "It's a kind of bright pink, considering that it's 100 years old. And it's huge."

Women were given their own ballots in many jurisdictions because election officials wanted to easily track their participation at the polls, Osborne said. This followed a practice of giving women their own ballots that included a limited spectrum of races; such was the case between the 1913 passage of the Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Bill in Illinois and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Approval of the bill, seven years before full women's suffrage came about, made Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi River to allow women to vote for president.

These days, county clerks' offices across the region are reeling from a primary election unlike any other, as it came shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And they're bracing for a general election that will look different than usual.

Under a state mandate, all local election authorities must send applications for mail-in ballots to all electors who have voted since the 2018 general election. Some officials, such as the DuPage County clerk's office, are going beyond that and mailing the applications to all registered voters within their bounds.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Lake County clerk's office is promoting mail-in voting as a COVID-19 precaution, in line with state guidance, said Linda Musak, communications coordinator.

"People can vote safely from home, in their slippers and with a cup of coffee," Musak said. "It's just going to be an easier and safer way for a lot of people to vote."

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough said her office is employing new tracking software to inform voters as to where their mail-in ballot is in the process of being received and counted.

"I think it's important for people to know where things are," Yarbrough said. "And the technology is there, so why not use it?"

Counties also plan to open polling places for early voting and Election Day voting as usual. Some polling places might need to move to avoid jeopardizing the health of residents at senior living facilities. But clerks' offices plan multiple methods of outreach, including newsletters from politicians and local governments and social media posts to make voters aware of any change.

Voting in 2020 will involve election judges as usual, but they'll be wearing masks and spaced at 6-foot distances as a virus precaution. Polling booths will be spread

out, too.

Voting this year will include the careful safeguarding and counting of ballots, then the use of online systems to make results public. And it will involve a commitment to access that Yarbrough said is a hallmark of the Prairie State since the days of the suffrage movement.

"Illinois is a great state," she said, "when it comes to having access to the ballot box."

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