Rise and fall of party lever

About 150 years ago, Connecticut arranged to send absentee ballots to some voters who would be out of town on Election Day, but it was only for the 1864 election and the state didn't get around to making absentee ballots permanent until 1932.

Indeed, Connecticut tended to make voting more difficult for its citizens during most of the 20th century with an instrument known as the party lever, so talk about making voting easier in the state is both welcome and overdue.

I bring this up because next year voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment that will remove absentee ballot restrictions and "permit a person to vote without appearing at a polling place on the day of the election."

The state Senate approved the ballot question on Wednesday for a second session, as did the House earlier.

If the voters approve, Connecticut could eventually have early voting at polling places or voting by mail or online, reforms not appealing to Republicans, as easier voting never appeals to the party that's on a losing streak.

In 1862 the new Republican Party was all for expanding the franchise. With thousands of the state's young men in the Union Army, legislators supporting President Lincoln decided to fix it so that the troops could vote wherever the war had taken them. So they got the voters to amend the constitution in time to let soldiers and sailors vote by absentee ballot in 1864. The absentee ballot was for that election only and since 1898 and 1918 weren't presidential election years, the legislature didn't bother to grant the absentee ballot to the men in those wars.

A permanent absentee ballot amendment for anyone who was away on Election Day or too sick to get out was added in 1932; the ballot for those who couldn't go to the polls "because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity" was approved in 1965.

That was the year that saw the demise of an unsavory monument to both political parties, the mandatory party lever, though it would survive for decades as the optional party lever.

The voting machine dates back to the late 19th century and it was apparently in use early enough for Connecticut lawmakers to find a way to abuse it by 1905. That was the year they saw to it that voters would have to pull a lever to select the party they preferred before voting for real people. It made it very easy to vote a straight party ticket but difficult to split your ticket.

How difficult? Here's how The Wilton Record, in 1964, explained it.

"At the left end of each row of candidates' names is a party lever. One of these must be pulled to the right until a bell rings. The straight ticket voter has finished but now the work of the ticket-splitter begins.

"The party lever causes each of the individual levers in its row to move down over the names of the candidates of that party. The ticket-splitter must find the lever which partly obscures the name of the candidate for whom he does NOT wish to vote, push that lever up and THEN PUSH DOWN the individual lever over the name of the candidate for the same office for whom he wants to vote.

"Leave in the DOWN position those levers indicating your chosen candidates. Move the large red-handed lever all the way back to the left. As it starts to move, the little levers will snap up, recording your vote, after which the curtain will open."

By the 1960s, both parties acknowledged the mandatory party lever had to go, but Democrats kept it on the machines as an option until the 1980s.

Then in 1984 Ronald Reagan managed to carry a Republican General Assembly with him when he won Connecticut by 321,000 votes. Democrats concluded their optional party lever was a threat to democracy, not to mention them, and in 1986, the party lever was finally removed.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury.

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