California Museum's history of voting exhibit trumpets election drama | Crain's Los Angeles

California Museum's history of voting exhibit trumpets election drama

As voters prepare to cast ballots in the state's June 7 primary, the California Museum is offering residents a deeper dive into the history of the politics and business behind the ballot box.

The nonprofit museum, housed in Sacramento's State Archives Building, is presenting “Power of the People: Voting in California, 1850-2016,” a look at the evolution of how people cast their ballots every election since the Gold Rush. The exhibit is a collaboration between the museum, the Secretary of State's office and the California State Archives.

It's an understatement to say a lot has changed in 165 years.

California Museum Executive Director Amanda Meeker counted some of the ways: the hand-tallied paper ballots of the 1850s have given way to computer-processed ballot cards; vocal voting in public was replaced by the private ballot booth; and the voting age has shifted from 21 to 18, the legal drinking age to the legal adult age.

While the 2016 election rhetoric is dominating headlines, Meeker said the exhibit shows off "even wilder eras in California."

The oddities on display include headgear that sprouted fire during 19-century torchlight campaign parades. The museum also couldn't have forgotten about the 135 candidates for governor in 2003, and their mass of campaign materials.

Then there's the first absentee ballots, sent in by Civil War soldiers who didn’t want to miss their voting opportunity while they were on the battlefield.

On the sedate side of the exhibit, there are many items that represent firsts, including 1930s-era campaign posters from Campaigns Inc., the nation’s first political consulting firm. There are artifacts from the 1911 election, the first in which women were allowed to vote. The same year also ushered in term limits, and the initiative, referendum and recall procedures. In the 1960s, punch card ballots changed the way voters chose lawmakers.

Of course, the political rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger is also documented. The 2003 recall of Gray Davis—the second recall of a state governor in American history—set the stage for the actor-turned-politician.

For a taste of the modern age, visitors can use interactive stations to register to vote, choose the election topics that they find most important, and see which presidential candidate’s views are closest to their own.

All artifacts are on loan from the California State Archives, California State Library, California State Parks, California State University at Sacramento and private collectors.

The collective effort makes for an exciting and educational experience, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said.

“California’s democracy is deeply rooted in the power of the people,” he said. “Citizens cast ballots and choose our leaders to shape our future… It’s important to look back at the impact of elections throughout our history.”

“Power of the People” runs through Nov. 13 in the California Museum Maria Shriver Gallery in Archives Plaza, 1020 O St., Sacramento.

Regular admission is $9 for adults, $7.50 for college students and seniors with valid ID, $7 for those 6 to 17 years old, and free for children 5 and younger with paid adult admission. Admission is free on primary day, June 7, as well as Sept. 27 and Election Day on Nov. 8. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The museum is closed on Monday.

More information is available at

May 25, 2016 - 10:29am