Americans heading to the polls today (Nov. 8) might vote using punch-card ballots, optically scanned paper ballots (which are generally handwritten) or computerized systems that record votes. In a few districts (mostly small and rural), voters might fill out an old-fashioned paper ballot and put it in a box. Those who voted before 2010 might remember the old lever machines. In the U.S., the hodgepodge of voting methods has a long and odd history, one determined by the sometimes conflicting needs of counting votes accurately, preventing election fraud and checking the accuracy of total counts. Because voting procedures are left up to individual states, it gets even more complicated, according to Warren Stewart, communications director at Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that tracks voting technologies.
The voting-machine idea started in Britain, with the Chartists. Followers of a working-class movement, the Chartists believed in such radical (for the1830s) concepts as universal male suffrage, secret ballots and voting districts that were based on population size, each containing an equal number of people. And it was the Chartists who first proposed a voting machine, which consisted of a brass ball that a voter would drop into a hole for the relevant candidate. The ball would trip a mechanism that would count a vote for that person. It’s not clear that such machines ever caught on. But the proposal suggests that people were thinking about secret ballots and properly counting votes while preventing frauds.
Secret ballots were introduced to the U.S. in the 1890s, in part to combat vote-buying (a common practice in the 19th century, when many votes were announced verbally and parties printed their own ballots), according to several historians. It worked, to a point. But putting ballots in a box to be hand-counted was, and still is, cumbersome.
“The advantage was that everyone is on an identical ballot and they all look the same,” said Warren Stewart, communications director at Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that tracks voting technologies.