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The initial Indiana primary system
Posted June 19, 2008 at 03:30pm by Chronicler

In keeping with Xd's post that blogs at OC seem pretty useless, I thought I would share something I learned today.

Indiana held its first primary election on 3/7/1916. It provided for a second-choice vote, which would only be used if there were more than two candidates listed. Write-in votes were not allowed. The law made it possible for a candidate who placed second overall to win the nomination, though I did not see any such cases.

The primary worked like this: the ballots for each candidate were separated at the time of counting. Then the second choice votes were tallied for each candidate, like this case for the first Congressional District nomination:

George K. Denton - 6,155 (second choice: Scales 271, Taylor 610)
Arthur H. Taylor - 3,891 (second choice: Denton 74, Scales 155)
Travis D. Scales - 735 (second choice: Denton 291, Taylor 150)

Note that from the start, voters often did not mark their second choice.

If a candidate received a majority, that person was the nominee. If not, the lowest candidate was dropped, and his second choice votes were distributed. The process was continued until one candidate had a majority. Here is a fictitious example which shows how a candidate who placed second could be certified as the nominee:

Smith 40, Jones 32, Newmann 15, Superman 13

-- Majority is 51, so there is no choice. Superman is dropped, and his second choice votes are distributed.

Smith 42, Jones 36, Newmann 16

--Majority is 48, so there is no choice. Newmann is dropped, and his second choice votes are distributed.

Jones 45, Smith 43

-- Jones is declared the winner.


The state of Indiana had special canvassing forms printed to be used to determine the winners of this complicated process. The forms have five columns for each candidate, showing that person's vote and the breakdown of the second choice votes among other candidates. For statewide races, these numbers were calculated for each county - but for some reason the names of the counties were not printed on the forms. Each canvassing sheet had enough cells for half of the counties, though two candidates with the associated second choice votes were accommodated on each sheet.

The system was very cumbersome for everyone. The legislature changed the law by the time of the primaries of 1920 to eliminate the second choice voting.

The problem was that the Secretary of State had hundreds of these specialized canvass sheets. The state SOS decided to use them rather than dispose of them, so for succeeding years, the column headings were lined out and ignored. The decision not to offer second choice voting saved a lot of calculations and space. Four candidates appeared on the ballot for the Republican presidential primary of 1920 - which took up four columns on two sheets. Under the system in place in 1916, this primary would have taken up 16 columns, or four pages.

The initial printing run provided enough forms to cover the ten years beginning with 1916. However, since eliminating the second choice columns meant that fewer sheets were used each year, the sheets lasted a lot longer. In several cases, blank sheets were used to separate the primary canvasses of one year from the next as a means of using them up quicker. The last time they were used was for the primary of 1940.

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