Explainer: How Voting Machines Have Changed

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For a few seconds it’s just you and your thoughts. You’re in the voting booth and you have the right and the power to decide who you want to vote for. This is true in the late 1800’s, the mid-1960s, and it’s true today. Aside from this similarity, though, voting in years gone by looked very different compared to 2020. Here is how.

How did voting work before technology?

In today’s world of complex technology and high-tech systems we tend to forget there was life without these devices. Today we text our friends, Tweet about things we care about for the world to see, post Instagram stories, and repost stories we like. If we got lost on our way to our friends, we just pull up Google Maps and it takes us there. When there was no GPS, we printed out the directions and read the map. Before computers and printing people memorized where to go and remembered landmarks.

What was voting like before the typical machines we use in today’s society? The creation of voting machines started around 1881 and they consisted of an array of push buttons. There was one row per office on the ballot and one column per party which interlocked behind each row preventing voting for more than one candidate per race. When one person cast their vote and left the booth, poll workers would reset the machine for the next voter. In this time there was no vote counting machine, so every vote was tallied manually by the people.

Prior to 1881, voters used brass balls to cast their vote. They would drop a brass ball into the appropriate hole in the top of the machine which had the candidate’s name. Each voter would only get one ball so there was no voting twice. Both ways still led to everything being counted by the poll workers.

Fast forward to our modern day elections where we have state-of-the-art machines. Our new electronic systems tally votes more quickly and efficiently, but can we trust the integrity of our votes. How do voters know their vote is being counted and not being hacked?

“In most cases, there are protections and fail-safes to ensure that voters can still cast a ballot that will count,” said David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. Becker previously led the team from Center for Election Innovation and Research creating a data center now used by 23 states that has registered more than 6 million new voters since 2012. “Election officials are working hard to prevent and detect any potential attack. They are also successfully working to mitigate the effect of any attack, allowing for the voters to vote with confidence their votes will count.

Are the voting machines easier or harder to use compared from 1940 to 2000?

Karen Buzby has served as the Judge of Elections in Montgomery County and is now a machine operator at her polling location. She has witnessed a difference in the voting machines over the years. Buzby was 21-years-old when she first started voting, which was the legal age in 1970 and up until 1972 when it became 18. She remembers a curtain which she would pull a lever to close, and inside there were buttons on a machine to push.

The next change was when the more modern version came out and it was a loose curtain and electronic buttons. She recalls people coming in and being confused thinking the operator would close it for them because that was engraved in their minds. Once they were done the machine would make a loud noise, so the operator knew they were finished.

“Now the process of voting is you come in and wait in line to get a piece of paper and sign in on a tablet,” Buzby said. “The voter then signs their signature and the person working verifies it is their signature with a list they have printed out. Then their name gets written on a list of paper with numbers on it. After it is then counted periodically through the day to see how many people have gone through the machine and then it is verified against the list of voters. So, we double check everything by having a machine and paper trial.”

The process of voting has seemed to almost come full circle with having paper trails to no paper trails and then finally back to having a paper trail. “The point of this new paper is to always have a paper trail, so it is safer. Everything now is done in the most secure way the workers can,” Buzby said.

From brass balls into a box, to push buttons, to all electronic and back to electronic plus paper voting machines have changed through the decades. In a world surrounded by technology sometimes we can’t always rely on it to be 100 percent. One thing is for certain, voting is a privilege and a right.

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 

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