LA's first presidential election was different

andres_pico-lapl-crop.jpgAndres Pico.

KCET's resident historian Nathan Masters was surprised to find that no one had written much about the first time Los Angeles voted for president, in 1852. So he went back to the primary sources and reconstructed the time. The election was between Democrat Franklin Pierce and Whig Winfield Scott, neither of whom had apparently ever been to Los Angeles, a village outpost of 2,000 people in the lightly populated, two-year-old American state of California.

The scene of actual voting is interesting for how different it was. In those days, the men allowed to vote cast ballots for electors pledged to the candidates. One of the electors for Pierce was one of my favorite early LA characters, Andres Pico, a Californio who at one time had controlled most of the San Fernando Valley as his rancho. He led an army of Californios against the United States during the war with Mexico, and most famously surrendered the province of Alta California to Col. John C. Fremont in an adobe house that stood where Lankershim Boulevard now passes through Universal City. The Capitulation of Cahuenga occurred on Jan. 13, 1847. Five years later, Pico was a presidential elector and a Democratic Party lawmaker, although he never did pick up English. His brother, Pio Pico, was the last Mexican governor of California and a noteworthy Los Angeles figure in his own right.

The election was on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Voters had to come to a polling location and be visually identified by officials. From Masters' post on the KCET website:

n Los Angeles itself, a crowd gathered that morning outside the adobe county courthouse at Spring Street and Franklin Alley. The contest between Pierce and Scott, fought over slavery and other sectional issues, might not have stirred much passion among Angelenos, but the races for state and local office certainly had. Just to reach the polling window, voters had to push through the throng of candidates and other campaigners huddled around the courthouse. Inside, behind the ballot box, the election officials – inspector Alexander Bell and judges John G. Downey and Ignacio del Valle – tried to manage the chaos.

Because California did not use voter rolls until 1866, these officials made a spot determination about each voter’s eligibility. Despite spirited arguments from the crowd about each voter’s citizenship and residency status, most white men who presented themselves before the officials were allowed to vote, as were most Mexican-Americans, made U.S. citizens by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Indians were not permitted, however, nor were African-Americans (though Afro-Mexicans like Pío Pico were). Women regardless of ethnicity could not vote, either; they would not win suffrage in California until 1911.

The ballots themselves were usually pre-printed tickets supplied by local Democratic or Whig partisans. To vote a straight party ticket, a voter simply placed the slip of paper in the ballot box. To cross party lines in a race, the voter simply crossed out the pre-supplied name and wrote in his preferred candidate...

Pierce's slate of four electors won Los Angeles County with 571 to 574 votes, to 496-498 for Scott’s slate.

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LA's first presidential election was different