How Did People Vote?
The earliest voting in the United States was done by voice, typically at the local courthouse. The voter would swear on a Bible that he was who he said he was and that he had not already voted in that election. Then he would announce his chosen candidates in each race, which a clerk would write down. Voice voting was common through the early 1800s, and lasted as long as 1891 in Kentucky.
In the early 1800s, larger municipalities began using paper ballots. At first, the voter would simply write his candidates’ names on any blank piece of paper and drop it into a box. By the mid-1800s, political parties were printing their own ballots, or “party tickets,” with all their candidates’ names. The ticket could simply be dropped into the ballot box by a voter. While this practice was legal, it led to charges of voter fraud. By the 1880s, reformers were demanding change in the election system.
Republican Party ticket, 1880
Preprinted tickets with only the names of a single party’s candidates could legally be used to cast votes in the early to mid-1800s. While state election laws typically dictated the dimensions of the ticket and the size of the type, the rest of the design was done by the issuing party.
Ballot Box Ward 5, Elmira
Ballot box used by members of Baldwin PostNo. 6 G.A.R.
The word ballot comes from the Italian ballotta, which means “little ball.”
The “Australian Ballot”
In 1888, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to adopt the “Australian ballot,” a standardized, government-printed ballot that listed all the candidates which was introduced in Australia thirty years earlier. Soon, other states, including New York, also started using preprinted ballots. Many states also adopted the Australian concept of the secret ballot. In 1892, New York State law required every district to have at least one voting booth for every 50 voters so that secrecy was assured. The booth needed to be three feet square with six-foot-high walls, a door, and a shelf stocked with writing utensils.
Official Ballot for Second Election District, Town of Horseheads, November 3, 1896
The first major use of absentee ballots in the U.S. took place during the Civil War. In 1864, about 150,000 Union soldiers from 19 states cast absentee ballots in the presidential election. Between 1911 and 1924, 45 of 48 states passed laws that allowed eligible voters other than soldiers to cast absentee ballots if they had a valid reason for not being able to make it to their local polling place. By 2016, all 50 states allowed absentee voting. Only 16 states, including New York, still require a voter to provide an excuse. Some states’ absentee voting laws have recently changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Official War Ballot Envelope, 1898
New York State sent absentee ballots to soldiers serving in
the Spanish-American War so they could participate in the election. The ballot includes spaces to write in the soldier’s choice of candidates for state-wide, county, and local offices. Because every city, town, and village in the state had different positions open, the full ballot was more than 5 ½ feet long.
The first mechanical voting machines were invented in the late 1800s. In 1889, Jacob H. Myers of Rochester, New York patented his lever-operated “Automatic Booth” voting machine. Ten years later, Alfred Gillespie, also of Rochester, introduced the first voter-activated mechanism that drew a privacy curtain around the voter to start and cast the vote when the curtain was opened. By the 1920s, gear-and-lever voting machines were the official voting method in New York and 16 other states. These easy-to-use machines inspired public confidence in the accuracy of the vote, but were so mechanically complex that they could easily fail.
Lever-operated voting machine used in Elmira and decommissioned by the Board of Elections in April 2011
When the lever-operated voting machine was developed in the 1890s, it had more moving parts than any other machine of its day, including the automobile.
Diagram and Directions for Voting on the Voting Machine, 1962
Technological advances in the 1960s led to the first punch card voting systems. A voter would manually punch holes next to their chosen candidates on the ballot and a computer would tabulate
the results. By 1982, about half of the electorate in the U.S. was voting with punch cards. With this system, however, voter error in the form of hanging, pregnant, or dimpled chads (the bits of paper that are punched out of the card) could be a problem, as was seen in the 2000 election. Optical scanning machines also began to be used for voting in the 1960s. In 2000, about 1/3 of election districts used optically-read paper ballots.
Help America Vote Act of 2002
Following the issues with vote-counting in the 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed in 2002. HAVA created new mandatory minimum standards for states to follow to improve the accuracy of the voting process. The new mandates led to a wave of states adopting touchscreen voting machines. After the machines proved susceptible to software glitches and the potential for hacking, most states returned to some form of electronically-read paper ballots. Only five states – Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, and South Carolina – still have paper-free voting.