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20 Vintage Photos of What Voting Used to Look Like

Voting is a staple of American democracy—and in many cases, a hard-won right. These glimpses of past elections will remind you that it's crucial to do your civic duty during this and every election.

Rex Davis Votes in Steel ElectionBettmann/Getty Images

Your vote counts

We’re fast approaching an election that’ll be nothing like what we’ve seen before. The COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of people’s lives. More people will be voting by mail than ever before to avoid potentially unsafe human contact, and many places throughout the country are struggling to find poll workers. As you prepare to vote in 2020—and here’s why not voting is not an option—get a look at these vintage photos of what the voting process looked like throughout the early 20th century.

Man Standing In A Voting MachineChicago History Museum/Getty Images

The man behind the curtain

This old-timey voting booth—from circa 1905, more specifically—is pretty different from what you’ll see today! These patterned curtains provide this dapper Chicago man with some privacy as he enters his votes into a voting machine. In the spirit of 2020 voting, here’s what mail delivery looked like 100 years ago.

Priest Voting in Arizona Elections, 1906Bettmann/Getty Images

Walks of life

In 1906 Arizona, a fully robed priest casts a vote alongside these cowboy-looking gentlemen. People in all job fields should be able to vote—which is why many people advocate for Election Day to be a national holiday! Learn about some weird jobs that used to exist in the past.

Election Day NYFPG/Getty Images

Waiting in line

Sadly, one thing that remains consistent about the voting process is waiting in long lines. These bundled-up New York City voters wait their turn to cast a ballot around 1912. Even with COVID-19, news outlets are worried that this year’s Election Day will see lots of lengthy waits—a good reason to opt for vote-by-mail or early voting. Here’s what a postal worker has to say about the security of vote-by-mail.

Field Artillery Members VotingBettmann/Getty Images

Serving their country

These members of the New York unit of the 1st Field Artillery cast their votes in uniform. They’re voting in the 1916 presidential election here, right in their own armory.

Women Voting In New York CityUnderwood Archives/Getty Images

New York City

Women in the United States gained the right to vote in 1920, but there were several states and territories—20, to be precise—where they were legally allowed to cast a ballot before the 19th Amendment. One of those was New York, where these three women cast votes in 1917, the year they won the right. These are all of the states where women could vote before 1920.

Women voting for the first time in 1920.Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Pioneering women voters

In 1920, the year the 19th Amendment was ratified, this Washington, D.C. scene provides a glimpse of the future as men and women vote together. Here are some more rarely seen photos of early women voters in 1920.

Women Casting First Votes at 111 Street and Broadway NYCBettmann/Getty Images

Stop in for a laundry run?

On November 2, 1920—the date of the presidential election—New York City residents cast their votes at 111 Street and Broadway, where voting booths have been set up next to a laundromat. Here’s the reason we vote on a Tuesday in November in the first place.

Ballot BoxesTopical Press Agency/Getty Images

Stack of boxes

This stack of stately black, fancily-numbered ballot boxes gave us a chuckle! In 1924, it looks like this trio has quite the job of ballot-counting ahead of them. Here’s how to spot the 13 most common election scams.

Mr. And Mrs. Frank Loesch VotingChicago History Museum/Getty Images

Civic duty on crutches

An injury couldn’t stop Frank J. Loesch, the founder of the Chicago Crime Commission, from casting his vote in 1928. Loesch and his wife May hand in their ballots at this Chicago poll center.

Chinatown VoterFPG/Getty Images

Signing the register

Around 1930, a voter named Ju Lin Ong signs his name, preparing to vote, on Peel Street in Chinatown. Though this was around the 1930s, it wouldn’t be till much later that legal voting barriers were gone for all Asian Americans. Many Asian Americans were discriminated against or outright denied citizenship. The 1943 Magnuson Act granted Chinese Americans the right to citizenship and to the ballot, and in 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act allowed all Asian Americans to become citizens. See if you yourself could pass the U.S. citizenship test.

African Americans at the Voting Polls of HarlemBettmann/Getty Images

Harlem voters

Black voters in 1936 Harlem, New York wait their turn to cast a ballot in a public school. Long after the Fifteenth Amendment, in 1870, gave male African-Americans the right to vote (and, more broadly, prohibited denying the right to vote because of race), Black Americans continued to fight for their right to vote. They would face many barriers to the ballot box, from deliberately confusing literacy tests to outright violent intimidation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to combat these and other tactics meant to stop people from voting, but even that Act was limited in a 2013 Supreme Court decision. Sadly, such tactics are not extinct today. Here are the signs voter suppression is happening in your area, and how to combat it.

Farmer Voting in ReferendumHistorical/Getty Images

Referendum in the Natural State

An Arkansas farmer votes not in a presidential election but in a marketing quota referendum to approve crop quantity. He makes sure his voice is heard in his industry on December 10, 1938.

Woman Voting in 1940 ElectionLibrary of Congress/Getty Images

Elaborate voting machine

In the 1940 presidential election, the one that secured Franklin D. Roosevelt a never-before-seen third term, this well-dressed woman casts her vote. Check out these little-known presidential “firsts.”

Mother with Her Child and VotingBettmann/Getty Images

A family affair

You’re never too young to learn about the voting process! This New York mom brings her kiddo (who looks interested!) with her to cast a vote in the 1940 election. Educate yourself before this election with these political questions you’re too embarrassed to ask.

Voters During a 1942 ElectionHistorical/Getty Images

Making their voices heard

On a smaller voting machine, this Washington, D.C. man casts his vote in a 1942 election. Do you know why some states hold elections on odd-numbered years?

Poll Takers at Voting StationBettmann/Getty Images

Busy election day scene

In Port Washington, New York, poll takers look on as this voter signs the register. Having people to work the polls and ensure a smooth voting process is just as important today as it was then, in 1942. Helping out at the polls is one of the ways you can help get out the vote in the upcoming election.

Truman Family VotingPhotoQuest/Getty Images

The Trumans vote

You may not think about it, but yes, presidents need to vote too! In 1948, Harry Truman, who’d taken office in 1945 to succeed the late Franklin D. Roosevelt, casts his vote. He would win his first full elected term in this election. Here’s what happens if a president refuses to leave office.

Former Governor A. Harry Moore and Wife at Voting BoothBettmann/Getty Images

Official ballot box

We love the unequivocal nature of this ballot box in a Jersey City polling place. In 1946, the former New Jersey governor A. Harry Moore and his wife cast their votes in the gubernatorial race. (He was not in the running this time!)

Native Americans Register To VoteBettmann/Getty Images

Indigenous Americans voting

In 1948, several Indigenous Americans living in New Mexico wait to register to vote for the first time. Along with Arizona, New Mexico was one of the last states to allow Native Americans the right to vote. More than 20 years before, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 had provided all Indigenous Americans the right to become citizens and vote, but many states had enacted further barriers. New Mexico’s constitution had suppressed their vote by only letting Native Americans vote if they paid property taxes while living on reservations, but state judges overturned this in 1948—largely thanks to one man, Miguel Trujillo, who fought for Indigenous rights in court. Next, find out everything you need to get out and vote this year.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.