Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 486:
VOTING MACHINES

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 486.

Today, we cast our vote. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Who do you want for governor, judge, and county clerk? People have killed and died for the right to choose. But there are so many of us and so much room for error and conniving. In an old Pat and Mike story, Pat asks Mike if he's voted yet. "Sure and I've voted three times already today," Mike answers.

Polling booth fraud ran rampant in the 19th century. It was far worse than Mike's voting three times or citizens from the local cemetery showing up on ballots. That sort of thing paled when thugs stole whole boxes of votes and destroyed opposition ballots. Written ballots are very vulnerable.

European inventors began working on voting machines in the mid 1800s. The first workable system came along in 1868, and it served a smaller public. It was also the first patent by a 21-year-old telegraph operator named Thomas Edison. Edison looked at the Pat and Mike politics in Congress. Voice votes took 45 minutes. All the while, senators swapped votes with each other.

Edison set up an electric tally system. It worked perfectly. When it was time to vote, each senator pushed a button. But Washington wouldn't buy it -- at least not then. Filibusters and vote delays were too much a part of their business.

By the 1890s we had workable public polling machines. In 1891 New York state made it legal to use the new Myers Automatic Booth. But voting machines were pretty hi-tech for the rough and tumble of the old precincts. Their use still stuttered along 30 years later.

In the early machines voters pulled levers. The levers advanced counters inside. Inspectors zeroed the counters before the election and read them afterward. Of course, fraud didn't go away. One trick was to switch the lever linkages in precincts where a candidate was losing.

Nevertheless, machines were the only solution. One by one, cities in New York state wrote laws requiring voting machines. Since then the scale and speed of machine-voting has grown steadily. Of course, our machines are now tied to computers. The vote thief we worry about today is the computer hacker.

Voting machines remind us that voting, like the democracy it reflects, is large and clumsy. Without machines the process would founder. They remind us that we don't use democracy because it's clean and simple. If that's all we wanted, a dictator would suit us. Elections may leave almost half of us unsatisfied. Yet they're the only means by which we all live in agreement.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Kassicieh, S.K., Kawaguchi, G.H., and Malczynski, L., Security, Integrity and Public Acceptance of Electronic Voting: Managing Elections in the 1990s. Journal of Systems Management, December 1988, pp. 6-10.

Zukerman, T.D., The Voting Machine. New York: Political Research Bureau of the Republican County Committee of New York, January 1925.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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