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Hearing the Election News: A Look Back

In 2020, politicians and news pundits all speculate as to when we might know the results of this year’s presidential election. Many warn that it could be several days at least…The President has said that it’s a terrible thing if we don’t know the results on Election Night. But we need only look to American history to see that results rarely were known on that night.

National News Came by U.S. Mail in the 1830s

Telegraphs were not used in the 1830’s, so there was no fast way to hear news. Newspapers were filled with appeals for people to bring in any election news they received via personal letters:  “We ask this favor not merely on our own account, but as a favor to the public generally.  Every hour of the day there are persons in the Reading Room seeking intelligence.  All returns sent to us will be spread on the Bulletin Board.”  

By Saturday, November 12, the editors were impatient. They wrote: “THE MAILS—The incessant rains for the past few days have rendered the roads almost impassable.  Nothing was received from the East, yesterday, beyond Belleville.  The mails from Illinois and the different parts of this State likewise failed.” 

Gossip Welcome, Too

Election gossip from stagecoach travelers and from mail boat workers was also greatly appreciated.  This appeared in the anti-Whig Louisville Daily Journal on November 8, following the election of 1844 (the Whig candidate that year was Henry Clay; James K. Polk ran on the Democratic ticket):  “The clerk on the mail-boat informs us, that just as he was leaving Cincinnati, he saw the clerk of the Clipper, direct from Pittsburg [sic], who told him that the very latest news from Pennsylvania was not as bad as that previously received, yet still we have little or no hope for the State.”

election news

News by Pony Express

The election of 1860 was the first and last time that the Pony Express was used to convey the news.  Lincoln’s victory was carried by riders across the plains from Fort Kearny, Nebraska, to Fort Churchill, Nevada, in six days—the fastest time ever made by the Pony Express.  The development and expansion of telegraph wires soon made overland relay obsolete.

The Telegraph Helped

Once the telegraph came into popular use in the latter part of the nineteenth century, news of the vote could be sent to newspaper offices around the country almost as quickly as the votes were counted.  However, vote counting was laboriously slow. Crowds would start gathering outside the newspaper offices as early as election night, they had to keep returning for updates because it sometimes took several days before the final count was known. 

In western frontier towns where there was no newspaper office, residents awaited the arrival of the newspaper that came in by post.   When it arrived, not everyone was literate so people would gather while someone read the news. 

Later on, when towns were more established and word came into the newspaper offices by telegraph, frontier towns would sponsor events so that people could vote and then stay in town to await the news. 

In Cheyenne, Wyoming in the early 1900’s, candidate-sponsored suppers followed by rallies were held on the eve of election day.  The next night citizens went to the opera house where they could see a play while they awaited the returns.  As the news came in, runners from the newspaper would bring the latest tallies to the opera house where they were read from the stage.

Waiting at the Newspaper Office

At the St. Louis Republic in 1916, they offered “bulletin service” on the street in front of the newspaper office. They used a specially fitted lantern to project the news onto a screen.  Initial wire announcements from New York gave victory to Republican Charles Evans Hughes—those bulletins reached St. Louis by 6:45 p.m. before Missouri polls had closed; it was several days before it became clear that in fact Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected. 

The crowds who came Tuesday night came back again Wednesday and Thursday, listening to the reports that were given via megaphone.  The editor of The Republic noted that at about 7 p.m. Thursday a competing newspaper published the Wilson victory in an Extra edition. Because the results weren’t complete, The Republic waited for final determination.  About 10 p.m. Thursday, a flash came from the AP that Wilson had carried California, gaining the votes he needed to win.  At The Republic a bulletin was put in the window and Old Glory was “ready to wave from one of the third story windows.”  After waiting so long, the crowd was more than ready to celebrate.    

Other Outlets for the News

The growth of populations and the increased interest in elections spawned additional sites for hearing the news.  In St. Louis in 1920 there were about 25 locations where people could go to spend the evening waiting for results. Those who still planned to wait at the newspaper office were promised movies, including a first-run release, Mutt and Jeff in The Politicians, a Harold Lloyd comedy, a review of current events, a Charlie Chaplin comedy and a “never-before-seen-by-the-public” motion picture made by “x-ray process, showing movement of kneecap…wrist, jaw, bone, elbow, etc.”  Those who chose to go to other public buildings would hear the returns announced periodically through a new “sound-multiplying machine,” the Magnavox telemegaphone.  In between announcements, the sound-multiplying machine was used to amplify phonograph records.

The Radio

On election night in 1924, Americans now had a new option.  They could go to their newspaper offices to await the news or they could go to local centers to hear radio broadcasts of the election results. 

By 1936 radio had one more effect on the election:  Candidates could reach out on their own to woo candidates.  The public had little chance of meeting candidates in person, so they were at the mercy of reporters’ opinions. (Radio was the Twitter of that day.)

Machine Voting Speeds Results (Sort Of)

In 1936, citizens in major cities were voting by machine, which tabulated the votes instantly.  Although 30,000 machines were in use that year, their results represented only one-seventh of the vote. All other voting was still done by paper ballot.  Election workers in schoolhouses, general stores, police stations, and firehouses worked for hours counting the rest of the votes. 

In rural Kentucky locked ballot boxes were still brought to the county seats by horseback and some counties had no telephone or telegraph, so newspapermen, eager to help get the votes counted,  volunteered to take the votes by automobile to a central location (Williamsport, West Virginia) where they could be counted and the report broadcast.

Competition in the Press

Press organizations were as competitive in the 1930’s as they are now, and each company pushed for getting the votes collected and calculated as quickly as possible.  Because of this, election results were announced twice with the “press tally” preceding the official tally by days if not weeks. 

Communication network of United States of America.

In New York City, a single city news manager for the NYC news association had to arrange careful telephone choreography during a three-hour period when 45,000 precinct reports were expected. 

Hiring People Who Can Add Quickly

Radio broadcasters who wanted to get reports on the air as quickly as possible suddenly looked for employees with a newly-identified skill—the lightning quick ability to add numbers.  The quicker and more accurate the numbers, the more competitive the news organization.

Faster reporting not only helped get the news out but had the side benefit of keeping elections more honest.  Officials could no longer linger over the ballot boxes, an activity that sometimes led to tampering.  What’s more, the big news services eliminated the duplication that was inevitable when numerous uncoordinated newspapers, telephone and telegraph offices assembled the votes. 

In Times Square

Though by the 1940’s New Yorkers could have stayed home to hear the news on the radio, Times Square on election day held the allure it holds on New Year’s Eve today.  In the past, The New York Times had used a moving electric bulletin sign on Times Tower, and a system of beacons to keep the crowd abreast of the news. It was a great place to be.

But in 1944, wartime blackout restrictions had kept Times Square dark throughout the year.  When it was announced that the electric bulletins and beacons would be put in use for election night despite the war, people were thrilled. 

Police planned for more than 1,000 officers to help control the crowd, and stores boarded their windows to keep the glass from breaking if large crowds pushed up against them.  That night a crowd numbering between 250,000-500,000 gathered to hear the news.  The crowd was particularly notable for the absence of young males.  Only sailors on leave or soldiers on furlough provided a touch of masculine youth to the festivities. 

At midnight the bulletin board flashed a message announcing the Roosevelt victory, and according to news reports of the day there was a brief but full-throated roar that was echoed in the square as a steady beam darted northward from the Times tower to signal the President’s re-election.  As the crowd negotiated its way to the subway, the celebrating was kept to a minimum as people remembered the men and boys far from Times Square.

What Will Happen This Year?

In 2020, Americans can follow the news in a myriad of ways—online, on radio or TV, and even in the printed newspapers… But when will we know the actual results? It’s anyone’s guess—just as it has always been throughout history.

To read more about election day traditions, see Election Day Firsts.

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