Although most modern Americans are surprised to hear it, the United States during the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century did not fully meet today’s standards as a democratic political regime. Restrictions on suffrage, whereby women and racial minorities were prevented from voting, kept the USA from fully meeting the basic institutional definition of democracy until the 1960s. During the 19th century, a second surprising difficulty kept the USA from being fully democratic: ballots used in elections weren’t secret. This democratic limitation applied as well to elections in Utah territory.
Modern democratic theory, reflecting the work of Robert Dahl among others, specifies two major requirements for a regime to be considered democratic. First, there must be essentially universal suffrage among adults. (Some exceptions are allowed; for instance, some democratic countries forbid the vote to active-duty military officers.) Second, access to governing power must be determined by free and fair elections. Social scientists have basically reached consensus about a set of specific criteria that an election must meet in order to be free and fair.
If these and other related institutional requirements are met, then the regime in question counts as democratic. On the other hand, a failure to meet at least one of these criteria means that citizens are exposed to at least potential coercion of one kind or another in making electoral decisions — and thus the regime violates the rules of democracy.
The electoral procedures followed in the territory of Utah from 1851 until 1878 did not meet these criteria: instead of a secret ballot, elections in Utah territory used an open ballot:
Each elector shall provide himself with a vote containing the names of the persons he wishes elected, and the offices he would have them fill, and present it neatly folded to the judge of the election, who shall number and deposit it in the ballot box; the clerk shall then write the name of the elector, and opposite it the number of his vote. (Acts, Resolutions, and Memorials, Passed at the Several Annual Sessions of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, pgs. 89-90)
Some historical context is needed on this point. During the 19th century, most electoral regimes in the world used open ballots, and hence were less than fully democratic in the modern sense. The secret ballot did not become an institutional reality until the 1850s in Australia (thus acquiring, in 19th-century political debate, the name of “Australian ballot”), and it was not generally established in the United States until the 1892 presidential election. (See this brief history of the secret ballot.) So, in a sense, all that we’ve learned is that Utah territory was no more democratic in the 19th century than everyone else.
However, even in comparison with the surrounding world, Utah territory may have been marginally less democratic because the potential coercive uses of the open ballot were perhaps more fully realized. During the territorial period, the official church party, the People’s Party, received a higher average percentage of votes in local and territorial elections than any of the big-city political machines in the US, than the vote share of the ruling PRI party in Mexico between 1950 and 1988, or even than the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
Was this extraordinary electoral unanimity simply a result of total agreement among the electorate, or was something less democratic at work? The available historical evidence suggests that, at the very least, some degree of coercion was involved in Mormon electoral unanimity. Discussions of and sermons about blood atonement, as well as rumors of church leadership involvement in the Parrish murders, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and other murders in Utah territory (for a roughly contemporary description of these rumors, see this unsympathetic account from 1901. Obviously, the account is not to be relied on as a history of the murders in question, but it does provide a sense of existing rumors about church-sponsored killings in the 19th century) were one dimension of public and private discourse in 19th-century Utah. These sermons and rumors, in combination with the open ballot, create the possibility that a reasonable Mormon in the 19th century might have concluded that voting against the People’s Party would have negative consequences. Whether or not that conclusion was correct — and I have no reason to believe that it was — the existence of an environment allowing such a conclusion is implicitly coercive. Hence, the open ballot, virtual unanimity in favor of the People’s Party, and sermons and rumors regarding death and other penalties associated with disobedience combine to create an environment that social scientists would today classify as an electoral-authoritarian regime within Utah territory.
(As a side note, the state of nearly open warfare between the rest of the US and the Mormons through much of this period perhaps seemed to require unusual unanimity among the Mormons. In other words, the non-democratic aspects of the government of Utah territory are perhaps understandable in light of the context of the times. On the other hand, it is likely that the monolithic apparatus of political Mormonism exacerbated tensions with national leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties. Hence, this approach may have had negative consequences nationally, in addition to whatever positive consequences Mormon leaders may have found in the institutional arrangement.)
So, what does Wilford Woodruff have to do with all of this? By the time he was President of the church, Utah territory had already adopted the secret ballot, as Davis Bitton explains here. Woodruff’s contribution to the process of Utah’s democratization was equally important: at his direction, the People’s Party was dissolved in June, 1891. Mormons were instructed that, since the church no longer had its own official political party, each individual was free to choose among the national parties. In making this announcement, President Woodruff definitively ended the last legacy of the earlier electoral-authoritarian regime and committed the church to living in institutional harmony with the national American democratic regime.
At each election cycle, when the standard First Presidency letter is read announcing that the church endorses no candidates or political parties, we should remember that this position of political neutrality is a direct legacy of Wilford Woodruff — our forgotten Mormon democratic hero.