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Inventors The History of Voting Machines
By Mary Bellis

Combined Tally Sheet and Boll Book April 1886 Patent #340,218 Inventor Kinnard
Paper Ballots

The paper ballot system employs uniform official ballots of various stock weights on which the names of all candidates and issues are printed. Voters record their choices, in private, by marking the boxes next to the candidate or issue choice they select and drop the voted ballot in a sealed ballot box.

This paper ballot system was first adopted in the Australian state of Victoria in 1856, and in the remaining Australian states over the next several years. The paper ballot system thereafter became known as the "Australian ballot." New York became the first American State to adopt the paper ballot for statewide elections in 1889.

As of 1996, paper ballots were still used by 1.7% of the registered voters in the United States. They are used as the primary voting system in small communities and rural areas, and quite often for absentee balloting in other jurisdictions. (Image: Patent #340,218 - Combined Tally Sheet and Boll Book - Issued April, 1886 - Inventor, Kinnard)

Mechanical Lever Machines

On mechanical lever voting machines, the name of each candidate or ballot issue choice is assigned a particular lever in a rectangular array of levers on the front of the machine. A set of printed strips visible to the voters identifies the lever assignment for each candidate and issue choice. The levers are horizontal in their unvoted positions.

The voter enables the machine with a lever that also closes a privacy curtain. The voter pulls down selected levers to indicate choices. When the voter exits the booth by opening the privacy curtain with the handle, the voted levers are automatically returned to their original horizontal position. As each lever returns, it causes a connected counter wheel within the machine to turn one-tenth of a full rotation. The counter wheel, serving as the "ones" position of the numerical count for the associated lever, drives a "tens" counter one-tenth of a rotation for each of its full rotations. The "tens" counter similarly drives a "hundreds" counter. If all mechanical connections are fully operational during the voting period, and the counters are initially set to zero, the position of each counter at the close of the polls indicates the number of votes cast on the lever that drives it. Interlocks in the machine prevent the voter from voting for more choices than permitted.

The first official use of a lever type voting machine, known then as the "Myers Automatic Booth," occurred in Lockport, New York in 1892. Four years later, they were employed on a large scale in the city of Rochester, New York, and soon were adopted statewide. By 1930, lever machines had been installed in virtually every major city in the United States, and by the 1960ís well over half of the Nationís votes were being cast on these machines.

Mechanical lever machines were used by 20.7% of registered voters in the United States as of the 1996 Presidential election. Because these machines are no longer made, the trend is to replace them with computer-based marksense or direct recording electronic systems.


Punchcard systems employ a card (or cards) and a small clipboard-sized device for recording votes. Voters punch holes in the cards (with a supplied punch device) opposite their candidate or ballot issue choice. After voting, the voter may place the ballot in a ballot box, or the ballot may be fed into a computer vote-tabulating device at the precinct.

Two common types of punchcards are the "votomatic" card and the "datavote" card. With the votomatic, the locations at which holes may be punched to indicate votes are each assigned numbers. The number of the hole is the only information printed on the card. The list of candidates or ballot issue choices and directions for punching the corresponding holes are printed in a separate booklet. (Todayís "votomatic" cards are the direct descendents of the original punchcard developed from a concept introduced by political scientist and former government administrator Dr. Joseph P. Harris) With the datavote, the name of the candidate or description of the issue choice is printed on the ballot next to the location of the hole to be punched.

Fulton and De Kalb Counties in Georgia were the first jurisdictions to use punchcards and computer tally machines when they adopted the system for the 1964 primary election. In the November 1964 Presidential election, these two jurisdictions were joined by Lane County, Oregon, and San Joaquin and Monterey Counties in California, who also adopted the punchcard system.

Although many jurisdictions are now switching from punchcard systems to more advanced marksense or DRE systems, Los Angeles County, the Nationís largest election jurisdiction with 3.8 million registered voters, continues to rely on their punchcard voting system. In the 1996 Presidential election, some variation of the punchcard system was used by 37.3% of registered voters in the United States.

Chad Painting by Mark KostabiIn U.S. elections, voters use pins to mark the punchcards by hand. The resulting leftover piece of paper is referred to as a piece of chad, a term originating from 1947 of unknown origin. Machines can punch chad out cleanly, but people cannot always do so, resulting in confusing to interpret ballots. New election terms have been used to describe disturbing ballot chad. Hanging chad means one corner of the chad is hanging onto the punchcard. Swinging chad means two corners are attached to the ballot card. Tri chad means three corners are hanging but the hole has been punched. Pregnant chad means a hole is punched through the chad but it still hangs on all four sides. Dimpled chad means there is an indent in the chad but no clean hole has been punched.

 (Click on the above image for an image close-up & a definition of chad.)

Regarding the famous butterfly ballot - the "butterfly" term refers to the plastic guide that shows the voter, which hole to punch.

Related Information
Herman Hollerith
Herman Hollerith invented a punchcard tabulation machine system for statistical computation. Herman Hollerith used a punched card device to help analyze the US census data of 1880. In 1896, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company to make and sell his invention. The company became part of IBM in 1924.

Marksense (Optical Scan)

Marksense systems employ a ballot card on which candidates and issue choices are preprinted next to an empty rectangle, circle, oval, or an incomplete arrow. Voters record their choices by filling in the rectangle, circle or oval, or by completing the arrow. After voting, the voters either place the ballot in a sealed box or feed it into a computer-tabulating device at the precinct. The tabulating device reads the votes using "dark mark logic," whereby the computer selects the darkest mark within a given set as the correct choice or vote. Marksense technology has existed for decades and been used extensively in such areas as standardized testing and statewide lotteries.

Although marksense systems are often referred to as optical scan systems, marksense technology is only one of several methods for recognizing marks on paper through optical reading techniques.

Marksense systems were used by 24.6% of registered voters in the United States for the 1996 Presidential election, and their use is on the rise.

Direct Recording Electronic (DRE)

The most recent configuration in the evolution of voting systems are known as direct recording electronic, or DRE. They are an electronic implementation of the old mechanical lever systems. As with the lever machines, there is no ballot; the possible choices are visible to the voter on the front of the machine. The voter directly enters choices into electronic storage with the use of a touch-screen, push buttons, or similar device. An alphabetic keyboard is often provided with the entry device to allow for the possibility of write-in votes. The voterís choices are stored in these machines via a memory cartridge, diskette or smart card and added to the choices of all other voters.

In 1996, 7.7% of the registered voters in the United States used some type of direct recording electronic voting system.

History of the Voting System Standards Program

(As of November 1998)

During the 1970ís, nearly anyone could cobble together a "voting machine", and sell it to local election officials. Few States had any guidelines for testing or evaluating these devices. Local officials either had to take the salesmanís word that the system worked or else depend on the opinion of colleagues who had already bought it. Voting equipment horror stories -- some of them funny, some of them downright chilling -- soon began circulating through the election community. They triggered concerns about the integrity of the voting process.

In February 1975, the General Accounting Officeís Office of Federal Elections (predecessor to the Federal Election Commission) signed an interagency agreement with the National Bureau of Standards to develop operational guidelines that election administrators could use to help ensure the accuracy and security of the computer-based vote-tallying process. The resulting March 1975 report, Effective Use of Computing Technology in Vote-Tallying, concluded that one of the basic causes for computer-related election problems was the lack of appropriate technical skills at the State and local level for developing or implementing written standards, against which voting system hardware and software could be evaluated.

This report and comments from State and local election officials led the U.S. Congress to direct the Federal Election Commission (FEC), in conjunction with the National Bureau of Standards (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology), to conduct a study on the feasibility of developing voluntary engineering and procedural performance standards for voting systems used in the United States. In early 1984, this three-year effort produced Voting System Standards: A Report on the Feasibility of Developing Voluntary Standards for Voting Equipment.

Based on the recommendations in that report, Congress appropriated funds permitting the Commission to begin developing voluntary national standards for computer-based voting systems. The FEC began the process in July 1984, and completed it with the Commissionís approval in January 1990 of the first national performance and test standards for punchcard, marksense, and direct recording electronic voting systems. More than 130 State and local election officials, independent technical experts, vendors, Congressional staff, and others participated in the effort to produce this document. The FEC spent $285,000 on four contracts over the course of this effort.

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Patent drawings provided by United States Patent Office
information on this page was reprinted from
Chad Painting copyright Mark Kostabi

From Mary Bellis,
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