select their elected leaders has been an evolving process since
long before there were united states.
prompted by a specific problem, have usually been the result of
technological advances or political reforms designed to improve
the voting process. As innovative solutions solve old problems,
new ones emerge.
method can ever be perfect, because no technology can ever be
perfect -- and that's because technology is but the continuation
of human activity by other means," Frederick Allen wrote
in an American Heritage magazine article tracing the history of
American voting systems.
a pattern has emerged for the adoption of technological innovations
in voting. A single inventor or company usually develops new voting
technologies, which are then duplicated and enhanced by others.
This can result in several companies manufacturing voting machines
that are variations on the same idea. Voting machines, therefore,
may differ drastically in terms of usability, complexity and price.
local governments have chosen
the voting system that matches their community's particular needs
leaders, such as Carson City, Nevada Clerk-Recorder Alan Glover,
have praised this arrangement. Nevada has recently considered
mandating a uniform statewide voting system, a move Glover opposes.
unified opinion also still remains strong that each county be
responsible for selecting the equipment and vendor that will best
meet the needs of the local voters within their respective jurisdictions,"
Glover wrote to Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller in November,
the Associated Press reported.
the local-control, however, maintain that a non-uniform system
results in problems.
In a 2001 paper on voting technology and reform, Congressional
Quarterly Researcher reported that the highly publicized voting
system problems in Florida and other states during the 2000 presidential
election were the result of "a hodgepodge of under-budgeted
and inconsistent local and state election systems and procedures."
The 2000 election
has led to a renewed nationwide focus in the political and technological
aspects of voting in the United States, including the passage
of new federal laws to set standards for voting machines.
contemporary American voters are accustomed to voting with some
form of a ballot -- a card or sheet of paper that lists the names
of candidates. Paper ballots were probably first used in ancient
Rome, although the word 'ballot' itself comes from the Italian
word for 'little ball'. In one form
of early voting, Roman soldiers threw small balls or marbles into
helmets that served as makeshift ballot boxes. Roman senators
also used beans or colored balls to vote.
Athenians likewise used small clay balls or marbles for voting,
placing a colored or marked ball in a designated container in
order to cast vote for their chosen candidate.
colonial Americans used different colored beans or kernels of
corn to cast a secret vote for local officials. However, the secrecy
of individual votes was not always a priority in the United States,
where voting systems vary from one municipality to another.
form of early American voting, a citizen would stand in front
of a bank of election clerks and call out his choices while the
clerks tallied the vote. Party leaders and candidates for office
could stand near the tallying clerks to campaign face to face
with voters and to keep track of who voted for whom.
the mid-19th century, a desire for the ability to cast votes in
secret led to widespread use of paper ballots. American voters
were encouraged to simply write down their choices on a piece
of paper, essentially creating their own ballot.
period political parties also began printing "tickets"
listing all the party's candidates and the offices they sought.
A voter could simply use the "ticket" as his ballot
by dropping it in the ballot box. Voters could also "split"
the ticket by crossing out party candidates and writing in their
this "split ticket" voting by printing candidate names
close together, leaving little space for a voter to write in another
choice. In some cases, parties made the candidate names
on ballots intentionally difficult to read, hoping vote counters
would simply read the party name at the top of the ballot and
award one vote to each of the party's candidates, regardless of
changes a voter may have made.
accurate vote counting was one factor that led to the use of government-printed
standardized ballots. Standardized ballots printed by election
officials were first used in Australia in the mid-1800s. In 1889,
New York became the first American state to use the "Australian"-style
ballot for statewide elections. By the turn of the century the
"Australian Ballot" had gained wide appeal in the United
scandals and a desire to make the process more efficient eventually
led to a general move away from paper ballots. Reformers who sought
to change the system argued that corrupt officials could manipulate
the counting procedure by stuffing ballot boxes or throwing out
legitimately cast paper ballots. According to legend, Boss Tweed,
the notoriously corrupt leader of New York City's Tammany Hall,
once said that vote counters elected officials, not voters.
Jacob H. Myers,
an inventor and maker of safes, claimed a new all-mechanical system
would "protect mechanically the voter from rascaldom, and
make the process of casting the ballot perfectly plain, simple
lever vote-counting machines, like the one Myers invented, used
a rotary device similar to a car's odometer, and eliminated the
need for paper ballots. These machines kept a running tally of
each vote. Myers and supporters who promoted the new system argued
that once the counting process started, human hands could not
easily influence the count.
lever machines were first used in Rochester, New York in 1892.
By the mid-20th century, most localities in the United States
used the mechanical lever machines.
vote-counting machines, however, had their own weaknesses. Like
all things mechanical, they were vulnerable to internal breakdown.
Moreover, if a machine broke down, it was not always clear when
the malfunction occurred, causing uncertainty during the final
A person with
enough technical know-how could also tamper with the machines
and affect the tally. If an election's validity was questioned,
lever machines left no record of an individual voter's intent,
making a vote-by-vote recount impossible.
of new and old technology in the 1960s led to a partial solution
to these problems. A new type of ballot was printed on a standardized
punch card that a computer could read, which sped up the process
and purportedly decreased the possibility that human vote counters
could tamper with results. The punch card voting system also left
a record of individual voter intent, making a recount possible.
technology itself was first used to run complex machines and to
do business tabulations. By the mid-20th century, when they were
applied to voting, punch cards were already familiar to many Americans.
By the late
20th century, punch card voting systems were prevalent in the
United States. Thirty-two states reportedly used punch card systems
during the 2000 election. That close and contentious
contest highlighted problems with punch card machines that are
now well documented.
if a voter using a punch card system does not cleanly push the
"stylus," or punch mechanism, all the way through the
card and remove the punched-out paper -- the infamous "chad"
-- the automated counting machine may not correctly record the
voter's intended choice.
As an alternative
to punch cards, some localities have switched to a paper ballot
system known as "optical scan," which uses a computer
to read ballots that voters have marked with a pencil. These ballots
are similar to standardized testing answer sheets most U.S. students
In a July
2001 joint report the Caltech/MIT Voting Project recommend wide
implementation of optical scan systems.
replacing punch cards, lever machines, and older electronic machines
with optical scanned ballot systems, or any electronic voting
system proven to perform similarly well in extensive field tests."
systems, however, also have some disadvantages. If voters do not
use the correct writing instrument or do not fill in the ballot
questions properly their votes may not be counted. As with punch
card machines the automated counting mechanisms have jammed and
with punch cards, they remain more prevalent than optical scan
move toward electronic voting systems
disputed 2000 presidential election led to a nationwide move toward
electronic voting technology that would eliminate punch card machines.
These Direct Recording Electronic machines, or DREs, have been
both widely praised and criticized as many localities have begun
the conversion from punch card to electronic voting systems.
Help America Vote Act, a federal law passed in October 2002, is
designed to encourage states and localities to adopt new technology
that will replace punch card systems.
$3.9 billion for upgrading voting systems nationwide. The money
will be transferred to state governments, which will then distribute
it to localities. Under the law, states have until 2006 to meet
Rep. Bob Ney,
R-Ohio, a cosponsor of HAVA, has said that, "punch card machines
belong in the Smithsonian, not in a United States voting booth."
of new technology, including many election officials, praise DRE
machines as an accurate and efficient solution to the problems
with punch card systems. The machines have also increased accessibility
for those with disabilities.
Association of People with Disabilities advocates the use of the
new electronic technology, which it says will give disabled voters
the ability to cast a secret ballot without assistance.
technology will allow millions of voters with disabilities to
cast a secret and independent ballot-many of them doing so for
the first time in their lives," the AAPD said in a statement
supporting the use of DREs.
DRE systems have complained that, like the mechanical lever machines,
the new systems may malfunction or be manipulated by a computer
hacker without election officials' knowledge. Critics have also
said that many electronic systems do not sufficiently record an
individual voter's intentions because they leave no paper record
of individual votes.
look at the consequences for democracy, it's terrifying,"
David Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor told
the Christian Science Monitor in November 2003. "If we had
a way to make [computerized voting] safe, believe me, we would.
There's no way to run a reliable election without a verifiable
paper trail -- that's what these machines don't have."
versions of DRE machines are under particularly close scrutiny.
A nationwide debate is under way between the manufacturers of
some touch screen machines and researchers who say the products
are unreliable and can be tampered with. The manufacturers contend
the technology is safe and other proponents have noted that apparent
flaws in a particular product do not mean all electronic machines
are unsafe for voting.
Holt, D-N.J., has proposed an amendment to the Help America Vote
Act that would federally mandate a verified "paper trail"
of each voter's choices so that the record could be audited and
making it possible to conduct a recount based on individual ballots.
officials, like California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, have
already moved to require a paper record function for all voting
are considering similar requirements. If HAVA remains as is, state
and local governments will continue to bear the responsibility
of sorting out the pros and cons of new voting technology and
answering the question of whether to require a record of each
By Jason Manning and Jessica Moore, Online NewsHour
Figure 2: Ballot from the personal collection of Jim Dowling of
Sac City, IA, photograph by Douglas W. Jones.