A Brief Overview of Elections in American History
"The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President..."
-U.S Constitution, amend. XII.
The Electoral Process in American History
In order to evaluate the role of voting technology in American history and political culture, it is necessary to be familiar with the nation's unique electoral system. As provisioned in the twelfth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizen cast votes not for president but rather for electors who will later meet as the Electoral College to decide on the winning candidate. Although the president is not directly elected by the people, the intent of the framers, according to a 1796 Aurora newspaper publication, was to "let the people...choose their electors with a view to the ultimate choice."1 In this vein, many states today simply omit the names of the electors from ballots; some voters do not even realize that they are only indirectly picking the president.
Electoral votes are assigned to each state equal to the number of its representatives in Congress.2 Electors for each party are appointed based on experience and party loyalty, and are pledge-bound to vote for their party's candidate. The Electoral College has decided several close elections, including the infamous Hayes-Tilden election of 1876 as well as the recent 2000 election. An interesting effect of this system is that even if a candidate wins the popular vote, he may still lose the electoral vote.
Antecedents to the Voting Machine
Antecedents of the mechanized voting machine in America include open declaration, casting small tokens such as bullets and coins, and paper ballots. In the ancient Grecian and Roman democracies, citizens used small clay balls or pottery fragments to cast votes, and paper ballots were 1836 Ballot first used in Rome in 139 B.C.E.3 Although the first paper ballot in the United States was used in Massachusetts 1629 to choose a pastor for the Salem Church,4 paper did not gain widespread use until the nationalist period of the early 1800's. It became common for each political party to print its own ballot listing the names of its party candidates on uniquely colored paper.5 Citizens would cast their vote by holding the colored sheet of paper high, a method referred to as "straight arm voting."6 This open method as well as the trend of transparent ballot boxes obviously made voter anonymity impossible, and election fraud was extremely common. The standardized Australian ballot, first used in Victoria, Australia, in 1858, was made mandatory in the United States in 1877 in order to control election fraud,7 although its success went only so far as political bosses and Jim Crow laws would allow. The standardized ballots were printed at the expense of the government and listed every candidate name on a single sheet.8Australian Ballot
The first patent for a mechanical voting device was granted to Thomas A. Edison in 1869.9 Edison's system featured an electric tally method wherein congressmen could simply push a button for their vote.10 The machine was never officially used, but it influenced Jacob H. Myers of Lockport, N.Y. to introduce his Myers Automated Booth lever voting machine in a New York election in 1892.11 Myers, a safe-maker, was also influenced by his own trade, as his walk-in voting machine featured a door that locked behind the voter as he cast his vote.12 According to Myers, the machine was invented out of technological necessity, in order to "protect mechanically the voter from rascaldom, and make the process of casting the ballot perfectly plain, simple, and secret."13 In 1895 Myers organized the Automatic Voting Machines Company (AVM), which along with the Shoup Company, founded in the early 1900s, is still a leading manufacturer of lever voting machines today.14 Presently, three alternatives to paper ballots exist.
University of Mary Washington, A Brief Overview of Elections in American History, http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/Rachael%20Deane%20--%20Voting%20Machines/students.mwc.edu/_rdean8it/HIST200R/elections.html (last visited May 17, 2011).