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A look at past voting methods
Nov. 5, 2012
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by Mark Ollig

Tomorrow is Election Day in the United States, and so your humble columnist reasoned this week’s topic might be of interest.

Don’t forget to cast your ballotta.

Ballotta is the Italian word for the “little ball” they used in secret voting; today, the word we use is ballot.

In the 1540s, the people of Venice, Italy would register their vote (in secret) by dropping a specifically marked or colored ball (ballotta) into a box or other container.

In contrast, some of the early voting practices in the United States used the “non-secret ballot” method.

This method was an openly recognized ballot vote; each citizen would vote for the person of their choice in public.

A citizen voted by using either a piece of paper, or by verbally affirming the name of the candidate they were voting for.

However, the non-secret ballot method was vulnerable to the intimidation, coercion, and bribing of a citizen to cast their vote for a particular person.

Then, a change took place. Starting in 1888, Massachusetts became to the first state to begin using a new type of voting method which would keep one’s vote secret.

This method was called the Australian ballot.

It originated in 1856, in Victoria and South Australia – thus its name.

William Boothby, a South Australian commissioner, is credited for creating the secret balloting system, which had paper ballots pre-printed with the names of the candidates up for election.

Citizens voting would mark their preference in privacy, on the official paper ballots which had been printed and distributed by the government.

A special wooden voting booth was constructed with particular dimensions and was private, except for an opening at the top.

The wooden ballot box, where the paper ballots would be placed in, was examined before the voting began.

The top of the box had a slot to accept the paper ballot.

This box was closed before the first ballot was inserted and was not to be opened until the final count began.

A resident then voted by marking a paper ballot while standing in the voting booth.

Once the citizen was confirmed to be able to vote, their paper ballot was placed inside the wooden ballot box.

The paper ballots inside the wooden ballot box were tabulated by hand.

The Australian ballot method of voting using Boothby’s system spread to Europe, and then eventually to the United States during the Presidential election held on Nov. 6, 1888.

Benjamin Harrison won the presidency over Grover Cleveland in 1888 by a majority of electoral votes: 233 to 168.

Cleveland won the popular vote by 100,456 votes.

In 1892, the first mechanical lever voting machine was used in Lockport, NY.

This mechanical voting machine, called the Myers Automatic Booth, was invented by Jacob H. Meyers, who obtained US Patent 415,549, Nov. 19, 1889.

Myers’ voting machine sped up vote counting, and considerably reduced the chance of over voting, as the votes were counted by machine instead of by hand.

His voting machine was created to “protect mechanically the voter from rascaldom, and make the process of casting the ballot perfectly plain, simple, and secret,” according to a quote attributed to Myers.

It was said, by 1930, various mechanical lever voting machines had been installed in just about every city in the United States.

Mechanical lever machines used in the US for voting stopped being made in 1982, and by 2004, they represented about 14 percent of voting.

Reading ballots using an optical mark-sense scanning system was first used in 1962, in Kern City, CA.

This ballot reading method was designed and built by the Norden Division of United Aircraft and the City of Los Angeles. This system was also used in Oregon, Ohio, and North Carolina.

In the 1964 presidential election, some voters used a keypunch device to create holes in paper punchcards next to the name of the candidate of their choice. Watch out for those hanging chads!

Nov. 16, 1972, five inventors filed a patent for an electronic voting machine called The Video Voter. They were granted US Patent 3,793,505 , Feb. 19, 1974.

According to the patent’s abstract, this device was described as “An electronic voting machine including a video screen.”

The Video Voter was used in Illinois in 1975, and is considered the first direct-recording, electronic voting machine used in an election.

If we go back to 508 BC, we will discover ancient Greece had “negative” elections.

Voters (the male land owners), would vote for the leader they sought not to be elected – but to be exiled or shunned for the next 10 years.

These ballots were not cast on paper, or even verbally made.

Instead, the voters would write a name on pieces from a broken pot, or “ostraka,” which is a Greek word, from where we get the word “ostracize.”

If a leader’s name received more than 6,000 votes, they were ostracized.

The word “election” originated in the 13th century from the Anglo-French language and means “choice.” The French obtained it from the Latin word “eligere,” meaning to “pick out or choose.”

If you are reading this column before the Tuesday evening voting deadline; please exercise your right to vote.


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