Article: Voting Machines, American Style :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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William Lawrence Bird Jr., Curator, NMAH Division of Politics and Reform

Americans are sometimes ambivalent about their technology. We love the ATM when it works--and hate it when it doesn't. A similar love-hate relationship applies to the invention and development of our voting machines. The recent past has shown how strained and tortuous that relationship could become, with a growing lack of confidence in the patchwork of vote-recording systems used throughout the United States.

Because the Constitution gives states the job of running elections, voting in the United States has developed into a hodgepodge of manual, mechanical, and electronic balloting. Almost every method of vote counting, from the paper-slip ballots used in rural New Hampshire to the gear-and-lever machines of New York to the Votomatic punch-card booklet pioneered in California, is used in some corner of the country today. If there is an advantage to the lack of conformity in what otherwise might be a national ballot, it is that this mix of systems cannot be easily "gamed." That, too, is a local matter. Like voting, politics is local. Thus the love-hate.

For most of the 19th century, individual parties created ballots with only their candidates' names listed and voters deposited these single-party tickets into a jar or box. But the introduction of the Australian or blanket ballot put the entire contest on a large, single sheet of paper that the voter marked, choosing from all candidates arranged in columns or rows by party. At the same time, mechanical counters added to ballot boxes prevented ballot "stuffing." Simple mechanical security features, and the arrangement of the ballot in columns and rows, are very much with us today.

The gear-and-lever machines of the 1890s rendered the blanket ballot in steel. Instead of marking a paper, the voter entered the machine, drew the curtain unlocking the levers for voting, and then set the levers indicating the desired votes. Opening the curtain tabulated the votes on odometer-like dials at the back of the machine. At the end of the day, the machine was opened and the totals were tabulated by hand. Weighing in at around one thousand pounds apiece, the machines offered certain protection against outright theft. The expense of the machines was offset by the consolidation of election districts that had previously tallied paper ballots by hand. By 1960 more than half of the electorate voted using gear-and-lever machines.

However, in 1962 Joseph K. Harris, then professor emeritus of the Government Studies Department of the University of California at Berkeley, conceived the Hollerith (named for Herman Hollerith, who invented the punched-card mechanical tabulator) punch-card voting system known as the Votomatic. About the size of a pizza box, the Votomatic harnessed the processing power of the IBM mainframe (the dominant Hollerith card-reading technology at the time) to the economics of polling large election districts then using gear-and-lever voting machines to tabulate long, complex ballots with multiple offices, candidates, and referenda.

Other states moved directly from hand-tallied ballots to machine-read optical-scan ballots. The consolidation of the vote-recording business after the Florida recount debacle of 2000 effectively retired the Votomatic system, leaving standing the optical-scan system, electronic touch screens (with or without paper printers), and a comparative handful of gear-and-lever machines.

Any voting system must win the confidence of the electorate in order to be successful. What is often overlooked in that equation is the tactile experience of casting a vote--whether it involves filling in an oval with a pencil, completing an arrow, striking a punch through a prescored Hollerith card, or clicking the levers into place and experiencing the ker-chunk of the gears opening the curtain of a thousand-pound machine. For all of its efficiencies, the touch-screen systems adopted after 2000 are hardly satisfying in this regard. While most of the systems that were purchased have been criticized for not offering the voter a paper receipt, would you really need a receipt if the machine had rows of levers to throw, a scratchy pencil or pen to mark, and a solid ker-chunk?

To learn more about the evolution of voting technology in the United States, visit the online exhibition Vote! The Machinery of Democracy.

From Prototype, January 2009

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