The term voting machine encompasses a variety of mechanical devices used for recording votes. The voting machines commonly used in the United States may operate using punch cards, mechanical levers, optical scanning, or direct electronic recording.
In colonial America, voters recorded their choices by placing balls, coins, bullets or beans in a container. Paper ballots did not come into use until around 1800. At first, paper ballots were usually supplied by the political parties, and each party used a different color. The voter would typically hold his ballot up in the air for all to see which color he chose. Municipalities also used voice votes, where the voter simply spoke the name of his candidate or answered "yea" or "nay." Some communities in the United States continued to hold elections based on voice votes until after the Civil War. A new system of paper ballots was first used in the Australian state of Victoria in 1856. The ballot was made from a uniform size, weight and color of paper, and it listed all the candidates from any parties. Voters marked their choices by checking a box next to their preferred candidate's name. Then, they dropped the ballot into a sealed ballot box. This became known as the Australian ballot, and it was adopted in the United States in the 1870s. The Australian ballot obviously offered confidentiality that the earlier voting systems lacked.
The famed inventor Thomas Edison took out a patent on a mechanical voting machine in 1869, but his device was never used. Another inventor, Jacob H. Myers, developed a similar machine, which became the first mechanical voting device ever used in a U.S. election when it was adopted by the city of Lockport, New York, in 1892. Several companies developed and marketed similar voting machines, which were known as mechanical lever devices.
They were widespread across the United States by 1930. More than half the nation voted on lever machines by the 1960s. The voter enabled the machine by pulling a lever that also closed the privacy curtain around the booth. To mark candidate choices, the voter pulled down pointers next to his or her selections. The pointers moved counter wheels inside the machine. The machine re-set every time the curtain lever was raised, and at the end of the day, its counter wheels revealed how many votes had been cast for each candidate on the ballot. These machines were thought to reduce the possibility of ballot tampering, though apparently those inclined to rig elections still found ways to do so.
Two more voting systems were developed by entrepreneurs in the 1960s. The first person to develop a voting machine using computer punch cards was a Mr. Martin A. Coyle, who marketed his machine in Ohio beginning in 1960. A University of California political science professor, Joseph P. Harris, took out a patent for a punch card voting system called Votomatic in 1963. Computer giant International Business Machines bought the rights to manufacture Votomatic machines in 1965. Close to 40% of all votes in the 1996 presidential election were cast on punch card machines. A second method of recording votes, using optical scan equipment, was also developed in the 1960s. In the late 1990s, almost a quarter of all registered voters used some kind of optical scanning machine. These are similar to the readers used for grading standardized tests. The voter marks his or her vote by filling in a dot or completing an arrow with a number two pencil, and the machine reads and tallies the pencil marks.
A smaller, but growing segment of the population votes on machines known as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE). This is essentially the electronic version of the mechanical lever system. By touching keys or buttons, voters enter their choices into an electronic memory in the machine. It tallies its votes automatically, and a district using these machines can have its election results in as little as half an hour. Many DRE machines use buttons next to a printed ballot. Others use a liquid crystal display to show the ballot, and the voter can push buttons or touch the display. Using these machines is similar to using an automatic teller machine.
Whatever the system the device uses, all voting machines have similar constraints. They are used, for the most part, only twice a year, and in the meantime they sit in storage. They need to be simple to operate, and also simple to maintain and repair. Relatively untrained and unskilled poll workers or election administrators need to be able to set them up and keep them working during polling, and yet they need to be highly reliable. In general, large municipalities buy more advanced equipment first, and the technological gains trickle down to smaller cities as they buy used equipment from their bigger neighbors.
During the 1970s, many small companies were making voting machines, some with dubious reliability. A document from the Federal Election Commission states that at this time "nearly anybody could cobble together a 'voting machine' in their garage (and some of them looked like they had been).…" Purchase of voting equipment was done by municipalities or counties, usually with no state standards to guide them. The National Bureau of Standards first issued a report on computers and vote tallying in 1975, and concluded that there were rampant problems with the technology, and few people running local elections were trained to handle them. Unscrupulous election officials could use technological problems to manipulate election outcomes. For example, when Jesse Jackson became the first black presidential candidate to run in a primary in New York in 1984, outraged supporters claimed that Jackson lost thousands of votes because voting machines in poor repair had been selected for neighborhoods with strong Jackson followings. The National Bureau of Standards (now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology) worked with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to study the feasibility of implementing national voting machine standards. A report was released in 1982, and in 1990 the FEC issued its first voluntary standards for punch-card, optical scanning and DRE voting systems. As of 1998, 31 states had adopted the standards, meaning the remaining states either had their own standards or used none. However, voting system reliability is thought to have improved substantially since the implementation of the voluntary standards, which ask manufacturers to submit their devices to independent testing authorities.
The raw materials for the direct recording electronic voting machine are light metals and plastics. It uses printed computer circuit boards, control panels, printers, lights, and memory cartridges made of the materials most often used for these components in other electronics such as computers or video games.
The various components for the voting machine are assembled separately at different work stations or assembly lines. Then the components are assembled and the device is tested. Typically, the manufacturer makes many of the components under one roof, and buys others from sub-contractors according to specifications.
- 1 The manufacturer maintains one area of the factory for assembling the electronic components of the voting machine. These are the printer module, the circuit boards, and the memory cartridges. Workers at tables or put together the small electronic parts according to directions, snapping and soldering pieces together. All of the electronics components are tested individually as they are completed.
- 2 Workers assemble other components at separate stations. These include the ballot frame, which is the panel that holds the buttons voters push to select candidates, and the control panel used by the election judge to set the machine. When all the interior parts are assembled, they are sent to a conveyor belt that winds through a final assembly area.
- 3 The case that houses the workings of the voting machine is made from lightweight plastic, and is about the size of a large suitcase. A typical manufacturer sub-contracts this to another company that specializes in this type of part. The cases arrive from the sub-contractor made according to the original design, with holes for screws and bolts. Workers on the production line drop the components into the case and affix them with screws or rivets. Other hardware is attached to the case at this point, including the privacy panel or curtain, and light fixtures.
- 4 Once everything is assembled inside and on the case, workers take the case to another assembly line. Here, the case is screwed onto the chassis, which is the table-like stand that holds the machine up. Now, the machine is fully assembled. It goes through a diagnostic and testing step before it is packed up ready for storage or distribution.
- 5 It is extremely important for voting machines to be able to work after long periods of sitting on a shelf or in a warehouse. DRE machines have a built-in self-diagnostic system designed to make sure the machine is ready to work every time it is taken out for an election. After the machine is assembled at the plant, workers start the self-diagnostic system, and the machine checks itself to make sure its electronics are functioning. Then, workers actually run through a sample election on the machine. They fit it with a dummy ballot, and vote on it from ten to a hundred times. If it passes this test, the machine can be stored for later sale. Before the machine is shipped to a customer, it goes through one more diagnostic and setting step. The manufacturer plugs the machine into a laptop computer and sets options on it, such as whether lights will blink or not, what county it is going to, and entering any passwords the voting district wants to use. The computer also does a further diagnostic, testing the internal electronics such as the setting of the clock.
Since the Federal Election Commission issued its voluntary voting systems standards in 1990, manufacturers usually work with national guidelines for what the machine should be able to do. The guidelines don't specify how the machine should work, but ask that it meets technical standards for its hardware and software, that it proves it is secure from tampering, and that it provides adequate documentation in cases of challenged election results. Though not every state has adopted these standards, and they are voluntary, it behooves the manufacturer to be able to state that its machines meet or exceed FEC standards. Independent testing authorities run tests on voting machines submitted by manufacturers, to determine whether they conform to the FEC's standards. The testing authority examines and evaluates the machine's software and looks at its documentation (how it shows what happened, in case of a contested vote). The testing lab also simulates the conditions the machine is subjected to in storage, transport, and in operation, to make sure it works or is easy to repair in varying circumstances. The testing authority documents how the machine holds up under "normal and abnormal conditions," meaning that it subjects the machine to a variety of stress tests. The testing authority also works with manufacturers to see that they learn to perform similar tests themselves. However, the independent testing authority does not certify entire voting machine companies. It only evaluates the particular model. It may provide guidance to the company so that it can run its own tests and make sure its internal quality control system is up to par.
Voting machine technology lags behind that of many other industries. For example, optical scanning was used in many areas long before it was applied to voting machines in the 1960s. And the most modern, electronically advanced machines actually make up the smallest portion of the voting machines in use at the turn of the twenty-first century. Voting machines must be simple, durable, and easy to use by even the most unsophisticated voter, and municipalities are for the most part reluctant to change and upgrade expensive machines that are used only twice a year. People in the industry have sometimes suggested sweeping innovations, such as systems that allow voters to call in their votes by telephone. However, this raises daunting security issues. In the late 1990s, there has been speculation that voting on the Internet might be a convenient and technologically feasible future development. Yet given the history of the voting machine in the United States, it seems unlikely that any new system would gain a foothold quickly. Even in the face of a proven better technology, the older systems will likely persist, with smaller and more rural districts lagging behind urban centers.
Where to Learn More
Moloney, Martha A. Mechanized Vote Recording: A Survey. Frankfort, Kentucky: Legislative Research Commission, 1975.
National Clearinghouse of Election Administration. Voting System Standards. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse of Election Administration, 1990.
Baquet, Dean, with Martin Gottlieb. "Politics of Voting Machines: A 6-Year Fight for $50 Million." New York Times. (October 20, 1990.)