Smith Center exhibit shows elections past were sometimes not like elections today

2016The U.S. is in the prolonged throes of a contentious presidential election.  It may be messy, but it’s all part of how we’ve always picked our leader.

Or is it?

On September 23, the Augusta County Historical Society will open a new exhibit that provides a detailed look at the evolution of elections and voting, across the nation, in Virginia, and right here in Augusta County.  “The Verdict of the People: The Evolution of Elections in Augusta County and the Nation” will fill the R. R. Smith Center History Gallery from September 23 through Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017.

The display will use local poll books, ballot boxes, campaign, paraphernalia, and political cartoons to demonstrate how elections – and how we see them – have changed over the centuries.  “The Verdict” exhibit will open with a reception in the History Gallery from 4:30 – 6:30 Friday, September 23.  Both display and reception are free and open to the public.

The new exhibit will show how, during the post-colonial years, elections in the new United States were reserved for the elite, and voting was restricted to white male property owners.  But the right to vote began to expand.  Slowly and with great effort, immigrants, African Americans, women, Native Americans and eighteen-year-olds gained the vote.

Elections evolved to embrace the secret ballot, and the concept of referendum appeared to give voters a say directly on major issues.

The new exhibit will feature several prints by Augusta County native George Caleb Bingham.  A nationally-known artist in the mid-19th century, his most important works revolved around elections with his painting “Verdict of the People” capturing the quintessential character of the unruly local election.

Another local native, Fannie Bayly King was an important figure in the statewide passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote.  She is also included in the exhibit.

The exhibit will also feature political cartoons by Jim McCloskey, a talented and award-winning editorial cartoonist who worked for the Staunton newspaper and donated his collection to the society. His creative and striking work frequently focused on campaigns and elections.  Some of the more recent included the 2008 Obama-Clinton primary contest, and several on Senator – now vice president hopeful – Tim Kaine’s political career.

The new exhibit will be highlighted by an actual mechanical voting machine used in Augusta County elections from the 1960s until the early 2000s.  Visitors may actually get to vote on the machine.

The ACHS was founded in 1964 to study, collect, preserve, publish, educate about, and promote the history of Augusta County and its communities. More information is available online at