Voting in the early days of the Republic

Before the American Revolution, only male "freeholders" or landowners could vote in the colonies. They made up between ten and twenty percent of the population. 

Often "voting" was done in public. Freeholders would stand up behind the person of their choice.  Gradually the secret ballot was introduced, but sometimes colonial authorities demanded that the way people voted should be published in newspapers.

Today, we worry about whether elections are fair.  This is not a new problem.  In colonial times voting procedures were anything but fair. Threats, violence, the destruction of ballots, and the buying of votes were all common in colonial elections. 

Once the Revolution was underway, some of the states introduced new voting reforms.  The requirement that voters be freeholders was abolished in many states.  Instead of owning land, white males just had to be taxpayers in order to qualify.  Vermont in 1777 gave all free adult males the vote (universal manhood suffrage).

New Jersey was the most interesting case.  The wording of its constitution gave the vote to "all inhabitants" who were at least 21 years old and owned property worth fifty pounds. This language was broad enough to permit non citizens, African Americans and single and widowed women with property to cast ballots.  

There were hotly contested elections in the state where huge numbers of people turned out to vote – some more than once.  In 1806, an election had to be cancelled when votes cast outnumbered qualified voters by three to one.  The following year, the state legislature passed a new state election law that brought New Jersey back in line with most of the other states.  It restricted the vote to white men who had citizenship, and were either taxpayers or owned property worth fifty pounds.