Last updated on: 12/15/2022 | Author:

History of Voting Machines

“The First Vote,” drawn by A.R. Waud. African American men, in dress indicative of their professions, in a queue waiting their turn to vote via token.
Wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1867.
Source: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital file no. 3a52371)

Non-Mechanical Voting: Balls and Tokens

The earliest forms of voting were fairly simple but public, so everyone knew your preferred candidate. In ancient Greece, a small ball or token was deposited in a ballot box for a particular candidate. The use of balls was carried forward into voting in secret societies, where a white ball was selected to vote someone into the organization and a black ball to keep the individual out (which is the origin of the phrase “to blackball” someone). The earliest voting machines also used small balls, including a machine proposed by the Chartists in 1839. In another method, voters might choose a colorful “ticket” from the party they wished to vote for and drop it in a clear jar. In each instance, voting was a public act. [1] [2]

Similar methods of voting continue in some areas of the world. In Gambia, for example, citizens vote by dropping marbles in vividly colored drums marked with the photo and logo of the party of their choice; a chime is heard when the marble is dropped, indicating that a vote has been cast. These audible and visual cues allow illiterate constituents to vote with ease and confidence. [3]

Non-Mechanical Voting: Paper Ballots and Viva Voce

While we may think of voting as a fairly orderly event in which we cast a private vote at our local polling place or drop an absentee ballot in a mailbox, voting prior to 1856 was a sometimes chaotic and, again, public event. Men might publicly declare their vote viva voce (by voice) to the election officials one-by-one either from a line or from among the crowd of voters and spectators. Voting viva voce dates to ancient Greece, in which “an early form of applaudometer” was used wherein the citizenry shouted or otherwise made noise for their chosen candidate. A group of people in a closed room would decide which candidate had received the loudest approval. While Aristotle deemed the method “childish,” the method was refined to each voter simply voicing their vote aloud. Versions of both the early “applaudometer” and more restrained viva voce vote are still used today from TV show contests to the UK Parliament and US Congress. [2] [4]

Women casting their votes via paper ballots in New York City, circa 1920s.
Source: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital file no. 00037)

Paper ballots on which voters indicate the candidate of their choice were used as early as 139 BCE in Rome. Signed scraps of paper were often used as ballots in the United States prior to the 20th century, raising questions of uniformity, privacy, and fraud. (Separate ballots were often cast for separate candidates meaning one man would have to vote multiple times with multiple scraps of paper, multiplying the possibility of lost ballots and fraud). Moreover, public forms of voting were frequently subject to vote-buying and other influences from candidates and parties at the polling place. [1]

Non-Mechanical Voting: Secret Paper Ballots

Private paper ballot voting was not popularized until the 1850s when Victoria and South Australia, Australia, adopted what would later be called the “Australian Secret Ballot.” These ballots, printed by the government, listed each candidate’s name in a fixed order and were counted by hand. This type of ballot was adopted by the United Kingdom in 1874 and the United States in 1888 (after accusations of fraud during the 1884 US presidential election). [1] [5]

Mechanical Voting: Lever Machines

Votes were mostly cast by Australian Secret Ballot until the advent of the locked mechanical lever machine, patented by Jacob H. Meyers (patent US415549A) in Nov. 1889, that  discouraged tampering. Men were offered privacy while voting (thus continuing the secrecy of ballots), while the machines kept a running tally of votes, allowing for faster reporting of results. The lever machine was first used in 1892 in Lockport, New York. Meyers stated the machine was built to “protect mechanically the voter from rascaldom, and make the process of casting the ballot perfectly plain, simple and secret.” Alfred J. Gillespie would patent another version of the mechanical lever machine on July 11, 1899 (patent US628905A). [1] [6] [7]

Thomas E. Dewey, Governor of New York, entering a voting machine in the 1948 election. November 2, 1948.
Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The machines were widely praised. In 1898, the Brooklyn Eagle boasted that  “where other cities were hours and even days in counting their votes, Rochester [New York] knew the complete result in the city on every office—State, County, Assembly, Senate and Congressional—in just thirty-seven minutes. There was not a mistake, not a hitch.” The voting booths, which cost $550 each in 1898 and were ”built like bank vaults [and] weigh about as much,” were not manufactured after 1982 but were still used by voters into the 21st century. [1] [7] [8]

Mechanical Voting: Punch Card Machines

While lever machines continued to be used, other technologies were developed that would later be used in elections. Punch cards were invented by Herman Hollerith and first used by the Baltimore Board of Health and then for the 1890 US census. In 1958, IBM created the Port-A-Punch, which adapted the punch card to include pre-scored holes that aided the accuracy and completion of the punch. [1] [8] [9] [10]

Punch cards were not used for voting until the 1960s, when University of California at Berkeley professors Joseph P. Harris and William Rouverol improved upon IBM’s technology to adapt the punch card to machine voting. They patented their invention, called  the Votomatic, in 1966 (patent US3240409A). The machine sold for $185 in 1965, was highly portable (weighing only six pounds), and even allowed for a mechanical vote recount, supposedly eliminating the subjectivity of a human recount. [1] [8] [9] [10]

However, the 2000 US presidential election put punch card machines in an unflattering spotlight due to the controversy over “chads.”. A “chad” is the circle of paper punched from the ballot when a vote is cast. A “hanging” chad is when the paper circle is still partially attached to the ballot. A “dimpled” or “pregnant” chad results when an indentation can be seen where the chad should have been punched but remains completely attached. The punch card machine could not read the vote if a chad were not completely punched out, leaving humans to ponder and decide voter intent. These punch-card problems had existed since the 1960s but seemed inconsequential until the presidential election in 2000, when hanging and pregnant chads and how to interpret them became so critical to the vote count in Florida that the election was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court (in Bush v. Gore), with George W. Bush declared the winner. [1] [11]

The controversy had consequences. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) effectively banned the use of pre-scored punch cards for American elections after 2006, though the machines were not completely phased out in the United States until their last use in the 2014 general election in two counties in Idaho. [1] [9] [10] [12] [13] [14]

Electronic Voting: Mark-Sense, Optical, and Digital Scanners

Voter entering her ballot into an optical scanning machine.
Source: © Lisa F. Young/

Mark-sense scanners were familiar to many school children via standardized tests. The student filled in a circle with a #2 pencil to mark multiple-choice answers before the teacher fed the answer sheet through a mark-sense machine that scored the test by detecting the graphite in markings. Mark-sense scanners were first developed by IBM in 1937. They were first used in an election in 1962 in Kern City, California, and the machines stayed in use for voting for about a decade. [1]

E. F. Lindquist, a professor at the University of Iowa, improved upon the mark-sense machine with his creation of an optical scanner that could detect simple marks on the ballots rather than the specific graphite, allowing a variety of marking tools to be used. Optical scan machines were introduced to elections in 1964, in San Diego, California. The machines are still widely used today. [1]

Digital scanners, considered the next generation of scanner technology, work similarly to home office scanners. These machines take a digital image of each ballot to count votes and store the images in a database in case a recount is needed. [13] [14]

Many jurisdictions with older voting machines switched to optical or digital scanners in response to HAVA, which required that outdated equipment be replaced. [12]

Electronic Voting: Direct-Recording Electronic Machines (DRE)

Direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines date to 1850 when Albert Henderson patented an electrochemical legislative roll call recorder (patent US2177525A) that allowed legislators to vote using “aye” and “nay” telegraph keys at their desks. Thomas Edison improved on the machine (patent US90646A) in 1869, adding electromechanical counters to tally the votes, and in 1898 Frank S. Wood invented a push-button paperless version of the machine for elections (patent US616174A). [1]

Contemporary direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines were invented in 1974 with the advent of the Video Voter (patent US3793505A). This machine was first used in elections in 1975 in Streamwood and Woodstock, Illinois. DRE machines with touch screens soon followed, though the core idea remains the same: DRE machines record votes directly to the machine’s memory, without a paper ballot, after the voter uses a touch screen, wheel, or other device to mark their votes. Some DRE machines are equipped with an add-on: the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), which prints a paper record of votes that the voter may review before casting the ballot. [1] [13] [14]

In response to HAVA, most jurisdictions replaced old lever and punch card machines with DRE machines. [1] [9] [10] [12] [13] [14]

ES&S AutoMark ballot system with audio jack for the blind and touch-screen voting machine to accommodate the blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound and people with other disabilities.
Source: © Lisa F. Young/

Electronic Voting:  Ballot Marking Devices

Ballot marking devices (BMD) are used in jurisdictions with older DRE machines and in concert with scanners so people with disabilities can vote independently, a requirement set forth by HAVA. The devices, frequently a tablet, allow voters to mark a virtual ballot by selecting choices on a screen or tablet. The machine then prints the marked ballot, which can then either be fed into an optical scanner for electronic counting or hand-counted. [1] [9] [10] [12] [13] [14]

BMD’s help those with disabilities in several ways. First, the ballot can be seen on the device or listened to via headphones. Second, there are four ways to mark the ballot: via touch screen, a keypad with Braille, a sip and puff device (for people with limited or no motor capability), and rocker paddles (for people with limited or no motor capability). Third, the voter can adjust the ballot for better visibility with zoom in and out and high contrast functionality, as well as better audio with repeat and speed controls. [15]

Online Voting

Internet-based voting platforms have been widely debated. Of particular concern is the protection of ballots from domestic and international hacking and from malware on personal devices. After all, even current voting machines are susceptible to hackers. Nevertheless, some jurisdictions have gone forward with Internet voting. [16]

© Khlobystov Alexey/

Estonia, for example, has used Internet voting nationally since 2005 for an early election period. Bulgaria not only uses Internet voting domestically but has also installed e-voting machines in international embassies for their citizens living abroad. [17] [18]

Seven US states allow ballot return via an online portal for UOCAVA (Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act) voters: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Four of those states also allow voters with disabilities to vote via an online portal: Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and West Virginia, the last state allowing certain first responders to vote online as well. [13] [16]

In light of the security risks that accompany online voting, are electronic voting machines still the best technology for voting in the 21st century? Or should we return to the time-honored, hand-counted, paper-marked ballot?

For more on the history of voting technology, see ProCon’s Historical Timeline: Electronic Voting Machines and Related Voting Technology.