- Voice vote
- The first paper ballots
- The Australian ballot
- The first voting machines
- Punch cards and “Hanging Chads”
- Vote by “iPad”
- The “scantron” of voting
Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy, but the Constitution of the United States does not say exactly how Americans should vote in elections. Article 1, section 4 simply states that it is up to each State to determine “the times, places and procedures for holding elections”. Over the past 200 years, the mechanics of voting have evolved from outdoor “voice votes” to digital consoles with touch screens.
During the first 50 years of the American election, most votes were not held in private and voters did not even make their choice on a ballot. Instead, those who were eligible to vote (only white men at the time) went to the local courthouse and publicly cast their vote.
Known as “oralOr vote by voice, this remarkable form of public voting was the law in most states in the early 19th century, and Kentucky maintained it until 1891. When voters arrived at the courthouse, a judge would have sworn on a Bible that they were who they said they were and that they had not already voted. Once sworn in, the elector would shout his name to the clerk and announce the candidates chosen for each race.
Campaigns and petting were allowed at the polling station, and a a drunken carnival atmosphere often accompanied early elections in the United States, which may explain why elections in the age of voice voting resulted in turnout reaching 85%.
The first paper ballots
The first paper ballots began to appear in the early 19th century, but they were not standardized or even printed by government election officials. At first, the ballots were nothing more than pieces of paper on which the voter scribbled the names of his candidates and fell into the ballot box. Newspapers began printing blank ballots with the titles of each polling station that readers could tear up and fill out with their chosen candidates.
Then the political parties became aware. Around the middle of the 19th century, officials of the Republican or Democratic Party of the State distributed preprinted pamphlets to voters listing only their party’s candidates in the elections. They were called Republican and Democratic “tickets” because the little paper rectangles looked like 19th century train tickets. Party supporters could legally use the preprinted ticket as a ballot, making it easier than ever to vote directly on the party line.
WATCH: Voting Tech
The Australian ballot
Partisan ballots reigned in the second half of the 19th century, leading to frequent accusations of electoral fraud and electoral reforms. The solution came from Australia, which launched the first standardized paper ballot printed by the government in 1858.
The so-called Australian ballot paper, which was printed with the names of all the candidates and delivered to voters at the polling station, was first adopted in the United States by New York and Massachusetts in 1888.
The first voting machines
At the end of the 19th century, Jacob H. Myers invented his automatic lever voting machine, an engineering marvel that would dominate the American elections from 1910 to 1980.
Douglas Jones, professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, studied the history of voting machines and concludes that Myers’ revolutionary machine had more moving parts than any other machine of its time, including the automobile. These early voting machines weighed hundreds of pounds, cost thousands of dollars, and would be installed in the corner of the local town hall for decades.
Voting on one of these lever machines was easy. Each candidate for each race had a small lever next to their name and the Americans voted by lowering the levers of their chosen candidates. If they wanted to vote according to a single party line, they could pull a lever which automatically selected the Republican or Democratic candidates.
But inside the machine, the counting process was incredibly complex, says Jones. There were 200 or more levers on the front of the machine, and behind each lever were mechanisms that prevented the vote from being counted until the last lever was pulled (in case an elector changes his mind ). The party’s right levers had to be linked to each candidate lever on the ticket and none of them required a single watt of electricity.
“The only power needed was muscle power to lower the small levers to vote for the candidates and then more muscle power to move the large, large lever that opened and closed the curtain,” said Jones.
Unbeknownst to most voters, the act of opening the curtain on the voting booth ultimately counted the votes and reset the machine for the next voter.
“These machines have aroused extraordinary public confidence because of their physical nature,” said Jones, who says Myers, Automatic Voting Machines, dominated 80% of the market. “But behind the scenes, it’s not clear that trust was justified.”
The lever machines were mechanical and a missing tooth on a gear was known to cause serious miscalculations that were rarely caught by election officials. And Jones says the machines could be rigged with something as harmless as the tip of a graphite pencil.
Punch cards and “Hanging Chads”
The first punch card voting systems appeared in the 1960s, when companies like IBM made punch cards look like the future of the computer age. The great innovation of punched cards, Jones said, was that ballots could be counted by computers, which could then produce instant vote counts on election night, which voters now take for granted.
But these systems also had drawbacks, which became painfully clear during the famous recount in Florida of Presidential election in 2000. It was then that the Americans were introduced to new terms like “dimple chads”, “pregnant chads” and “hanging chads”
A chad is the small rectangle of paper that comes out of a punch card when the voter makes his selection. The problems begin when a chad is not completely detached (a suspended chad) or only partially depressed (a pregnant or honeycomb chad).
During the extended Florida recounts, election officials had to examine each ballot by hand to determine whether the hanging or blistered chads should be counted or discarded.
Vote by “iPad”
Following the recount in Florida, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which required higher standards for voting equipment used in federal elections.
“The Help America Vote Act assumed that touchscreen technology was going to be the future of voting,” says Jones, “and in the early 2000s there was a great wave of adoption of touchscreen voting machines. , then a big backlash. “
Even though states and municipalities spent millions of dollars upgrading their voting equipment, not all new touchscreen voting machines were created equal, Jones says, and software problems produced glaring errors in the voters’ count. And in the 2016 presidential election, electronic voting machines in 21 states were targeted by Russian hackers.
As a result, several states scrapped their expensive touchscreen voting machines and returned to paper ballots.
The “scantron” of voting
Shortly after the first punch card voting machines hit the market in the 1960s, a competing voting technology called optical scanning machines did the same. Jones says these voting machines were directly inspired by the scannable fillable forms used to automatically classify standardized tests.
With fears about pirated voting machines and more states encouraging advance voting by mail, optical scanning technology is now the most popular way to vote in America. Fillable ballots can easily be mailed to voters, which reduces the need for volunteers at polling stations and greatly extends the voting time beyond polling day.
Even better, optical scanning technology is cheap, says Jones, and there is no Chad.