Millions of Americans will vote today, and for the first time in years, many of them will use paper ballots. For a nation that’s produced some of the most advanced machines in the world, we’ve had a hell of a time figuring out one of the most important. However you vote today, take a second (and make sure your machine isn’t switching your vote) to consider just how massive a project elections are: Over a single day, millions of Americans filter through gyms, fire halls, and community center to vote, creating individual data points in all are analyzed over the course of a few hours. It’s a remarkable project of numbers and engineering, and it helps to explain why voting is still evolving two centuries after the first American election. To get a sense of how many iterations and failures have plagued voting day, look no further than the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which helpfully pulled some of the more notable machines from its archives today, adding, “as Americans embrace their Constitutional right to vote, they’ll have IP all around them.” If you go all the way back in the USPTO’s archives, you’ll find dozens of patents for “improvements to ballot boxes,” to outsmart ballot stuffers. According to Richard Bensel’s The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, intimidation was common in polling places across the country, where Americans would cast their votes amongst their peers.
A 1874 patent involved a glass box with a complex mechanism that would sound a GONG every time a ballot was received. Three locks with there individual keys were needed to open it, which still put plenty of agency in the hands of the officials. It’s hard to say whether it was ever used, but easy to imagine the din it would have caused.
It wasn’t until the late 1880s and early 1890s that the U.S. adopted the so-called Australian ballot, or secret ballot, which allowed voters privacy to make their decisions and then cast their votes—a crucial step towards stopping intimidation at the polls. A 1889 patent from Charles Peck of Massachusetts described the design of a new system for “the voting compartments or shelves required to be used under the new laws,” which would let voters make their choices in peace.
Full Article: America’s Long, Weird Search for the Perfect Voting Machine.