How Americans Have Voted Through History - HISTORY

History Stories

Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy, but the United States Constitution doesn’t say exactly how Americans should cast their ballots in elections. Article 1, Section 4 simply states that it’s up to each state to determine “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections.” Over the past 200 years, the mechanics of voting have evolved from open-air “voice votes” to touch screen digital consoles.

Voice Voting

For the first 50 years of American elections, most voting wasn’t done in private and voters didn’t even make their choice on a paper ballot. Instead, those with the right to vote (only white men at the time) went to the local courthouse and publicly cast their vote out loud.

Known as “viva voce” or voice voting, this conspicuous form of public voting was the law in most states through the early 19th century and Kentucky kept it up as late as 1891. As voters arrived at the courthouse, a judge would have them swear on a Bible that they were who they said they were and that they hadn’t already voted. Once sworn in, the voter would call out his name to the clerk and announce his chosen candidates in each race.

Campaigning and carousing were allowed at the polling place, and a drunken carnival atmosphere often accompanied early American elections, which might explain why elections in the voice-voting era commanded turnout rates as high as 85 percent.

The First Paper Ballots

The first paper ballots began appearing in the early 19th century, but they weren’t standardized or even printed by government elections officials. In the beginning, paper ballots were nothing more than scraps of paper upon which the voter scrawled his candidates' names and dropped into the ballot box. Newspapers began to print out blank ballots with the titles of each office up for vote which readers could tear out and fill in with their chosen candidates.

Then the political parties got savvy. By the mid-19th century, state Republican or Democratic party officials would distribute pre-printed fliers to voters listing only their party’s candidates for office. They were called Republican and Democratic “tickets” because the small rectangles of paper resembled 19th-century train tickets. Party faithful could legally use the pre-printed ticket as their actual ballot making it easier than ever to vote straight down the party line.

WATCH: Voting Tech

The Australian Paper Ballot

Partisan paper ballots ruled the second half of the 19th-century, leading to frequent accusations of voter fraud and calls for election reform. The solution came from Australia, which pioneered the first standardized, government-printed paper ballot in 1858.

The so-called Australian paper ballot, which was printed with the names of all candidates and handed to voters at the polling place, was first adopted in the United States by New York and Massachusetts in 1888.

The First Voting Machines

In the late 19th-century, Jacob H. Myers invented his lever-operated “Automatic Booth” voting machine, an engineering marvel that would come to dominate American elections from 1910 through 1980.

Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa, has researched the history of voting machines and concludes that Myers’ groundbreaking contraption had more moving parts than any other machine of its day, including the automobile. These early voting machines weighed hundreds of pounds, cost thousands of dollars and would be installed in the corner of the local town hall for decades.

Voting on one of these lever machines was easy. Each candidate for each race had a small lever next to his or her name and Americans voted by pulling down the levers of their chosen candidates. If they wanted to vote along a single party line, they could pull one lever that automatically selected the Republican or Democratic candidates.

An undated photo of a hand pushing a lever in  a voting booth.

An undated photo of a hand pushing a lever in  a voting booth.

But inside the machine, the vote-counting process was incredibly complex, says Jones. There were 200 or more levers on the face of the machine, and behind each lever were mechanisms that prevented the vote from being counted until the final lever was pulled (in case a voter changed their mind). The straight party levers had to be linked to every candidate lever on the ticket and none of it required a single watt of electricity.

“The only power required was muscle power to pull down the small levers to vote for candidates and then more muscle power to move the great big lever that opened and closed the curtain,” says Jones.

Unbeknownst to most voters, the action of opening the curtain on the voting booth was what finally counted the votes and reset the machine for the next voter.

“These machines inspired extraordinary public confidence because of their sheer physicality,” says Jones, who says that Myers’ company, Automatic Voting Machines, dominated 80 percent of the market. “But behind the scenes, it’s not clear that confidence was justified.”

Lever machines were mechanical, and a single missing tooth on a gear was known to cause serious miscounts that were rarely caught by election officials. And Jones says that the machines could be rigged with something as innocuous as the tip of a graphite pencil.

Punch Cards and ‘Hanging Chads’

The first punch card voting systems came out in the 1960s, when companies like IBM made punch cards look like the future of the computer age. The great innovation of punch cards, Jones says, was that ballots could be counted by computers, which could then produce instantaneous vote tallies on election night, something voters now take for granted.

But these systems also had drawbacks, which became painfully clear during the infamous Florida recount of the 2000 presidential election. That’s when Americans were introduced to new terms like “dimpled chads,” “pregnant chads” and “hanging chads.”

A chad is the small rectangle of paper that’s popped out of a punch card when the voter makes their selection. The problems start when a chad isn’t fully detached (a hanging chad) or only partially pushed in (a pregnant or dimpled chad).

During the drawn-out Florida recounts, election officials had to examine each punch card ballot by hand to determine if hanging or dimpled chads should be counted or thrown out.

Electronic voting

People use electronic voting machines to cast their ballot in the midterm elections at Neighborhood Congregational Church in Laguna Beach, California on November 6, 2018.

Voting by ‘iPad’

In the wake of the Florida recount, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which mandated higher standards for the voting equipment used in federal elections.

“The Help America Vote Act assumed that touch screen technology was going to be the future of voting,” says Jones, “and in the early 2000s, there was a big wave of adoption of touch screen voting machines, and then a big backlash.”

Even though states and municipalities spent millions of dollars upgrading their voting equipment, not all of the new touch screen voting machines were created equal, says Jones, and software glitches produced some glaring errors in voter tallies. And in the 2016 presidential election, electronic voting machines in 21 states were targeted by Russian hackers.

As a result, several states have scrapped their expensive touch screen voting machines and switched back to paper-based ballots.

The ‘Scantron’ of Voting

Soon after the first punch card voting machines hit the market in the 1960s, so did a competing voting technology called optical scanning machines. Jones says these voting machines were directly inspired by the fill-in-the-bubble scannable forms used to automatically grade standardized tests.

With fears over hacked voting machines and more states encouraging early voting by mail, optical scanning technology is now the most popular way to cast a vote in America. Fillable paper ballots can easily be mailed out to voters, reducing the need for polling place volunteers and greatly expanding the time frame for voting beyond election day.

Even better, optical scanning technology is cheap, Jones says, and there are no chads.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

RELATED CONTENT