Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A History of Voting Machines and Automation

Just as society moved from walking on foot to riding horses to driving cars, the history of automation and voting machines has much the same sense of evolution. However, what's interesting is that one technology didn't really replace the one that preceded it; many different types of voting machines co-existed for a number of years and even today, many standards exists for what is accepted as a reliable and efficient voting system.

The Origin of the "Ballot" Box
How did the term "ballot" come to be? It derives its origin from "ballota," an Italian word meaning little colored ball. In Ancient Athens, voters would be given a clay ball. They would then deposit the ball into the clay pot ("ballot box") corresponding to the candidate of their choice. The number of balls would be then be counted and a winner announced. Interestingly, the "ballot" ball system was used until the late 1800s, despite the fact that many other voting systems were developed and used in the interim.

Introducing Paper Ballots
The first paper ballots were introduced around 139 BC in Rome, but they didn't really pick up in popularity until the mid 19th century. Around that time, most ballot papers were not standardized. Voters simply wrote the name of the candidate on a piece of paper and deposited the slip into a ballot box. This started to change in 1856.

During that year, the Australian state of Victoria introduced uniform official ballots that were printed at the government's expense. These ballots are much like the paper ballots that we see today: all the candidates are listed in the same order and voters simply make their choice based on this list. The Australian Secret Ballot system, as it came to be known, was adopted by Massachusetts in 1888, making it the first US state to do so.

The Adoption of Mechanical Lever Machines

The Myers Automatic Booth made its debut in 1892, marking the first time that an election used a lever-based voting machine. Each candidate is assigned a lever and the voter enters the booth, pulls the lever associated with his or her candidate of choice, and exits the voting booth. The machine automatically records each vote and tallies up the total in an odometer-like fashion.

What's interesting is that the Australian Secret Ballot was introduced to the state of New York around the same time with both systems co-existing for a number of years. The mechanical lever machine became increasingly popular with more than half of the United States using it by the 1960s. They were discontinued following the 1996 presidential election.

Punch Cards and "Chads" as Alternatives
The late 19th century proved to be a fruitful time for voting technology. In addition to the secret paper-based ballot and the mechanical lever systems, the standard punch card arrived in the late 1880s. Invented by Herman Hollerith, it was originally used to tabulate statistics, but was quickly adapted for voting purposes.

With this system, a punch card contains several small holes and it is attached to a sturdy board. Voters punch through these holes using a stylus, forming what is known as a chad. The voting card is then inserted in a ballot box or fed through a tabulating device, oftentimes computerized. Punch card voting became one of the most common voting machine used in the United States in the 1960s and continued to be used for decades after that. The 2000 US Presidential election presented significant challenges to the punch card system, particularly in Florida, resulting in a very high number of spoiled ballots.

Switching to Optical Scanning Machines
A huge shift started in the 1960s when the first Mark-Sense ballots were used in Kern City, California. In 1962, these optical scan machines allowed voters to use pre-printed ballots that contained all the candidates’ names. Next to the name was an empty box or circle where the voter would make his or her mark. The computerized vote-tabulating machine could then recognize the mark and record the corresponding vote.

The Arrival of Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machines

In stark contrast to many of the systems that preceded it, the era of the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machine represents the elimination of the physical ballot. There is no ball, no paper, no scanning. Instead, the vote is recorded directly on an electronic device. This may be in the form of a push button or it may be a touch-screen. Some systems also include keyboards or headphones for alternative inputs.

The votes are automatically stored on the electronic memory and the total votes are also tabulated in an automated fashion. 

Timeline of Voting Machines