Before Florida; A History of Voting Technology

Posted in Jacob Canon, The Oscar Show, UVa College of Arts & Sciences, University of Virginia, elections, ethics, technology, voting machines at 5:50 pm by Jacob Canon

In today’s show, adapted from an article published on the Oscar web site written by Andrea Arco, Director of Marketing for U.Va’s Engineering School, we examine the work of Bryan Pfaffenberger, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and his study of mechanical-lever voting machines, their history and understanding the interaction between technology and culture that has been going on for more than a century.

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For more than a century, voting machines have helped shape American political history. The chaos of the 2000 presidential election in Florida and the alleged election fraud in Ohio during 2004, which led to testimony before congress about computer programs that could rig an election, demonstrate the crucial role that voting machines play in shaping the outcome of an election. Bryan Pfaffenberger, a historian of science and an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, believes there is value in understanding that the interaction between technology and culture has been going on for more than a century.

His ongoing study is part of a larger Democracy and Technology program that he and colleagues are developing within UVa’s Department of Science, Technology and Society. Pfaffenberger said, “this initiative that has already sparked several cross-University collaborations and additions to the curriculum. It’s fitting that this initiative is underway at the university Thomas Jefferson founded. Jefferson strongly believed that engineers need to be good citizens; today, the need is greater than ever, so it’s important for science and engineering students indeed, students throughout the University to reflect on how technologies shape our democracy.”

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, U.S. voters got their ballots from political parties, who printed and distributed them at polling places. Voters would then hand their ballots to election clerks in full view of the public. This led to widespread vote-buying, because the vote buyers could see whether corrupted voters fulfilled their end of the bargain.

Beginning in 1888, a movement favoring the Australian secret ballot system swept the country. In this system, the government prints the paper ballots and voters mark them behind a privacy curtain. This cut down vote buying, but election fraud moved inside the polling place as corrupt officials learned other ways to swing an election. This was especially true in large cities, where political machines such as New York City’s Tammany Hall ran the show.

Because of this, and since New Yorks electoral votes often determined the outcome of presidential elections, these voting machines proved attractive because they kept paper out of the hands of election officials. The machines recorded votes directly on odometer-like counters. Still, not everyone liked the machines. For example, voters could not tell whether their votes were recorded as they had intended — or whether they were recorded at all. Paper ballots might have flaws, but at least there was a record of how people voted

Pfaffenberger said, “there’s an almost exact parallel between the debate we’re having today concerning electronic voting machines and the equally divisive, but completely forgotten, debate that greeted first-generation voting machine technology in the 1890s.” One side says, “trust machines, not people.” The other side says, “trust people, not machines.” Electronic “touch-screen” voting machines are today’s version of 1890s machines — they try to keep paper away from biased, partisan, or overworked human counters.

But voters are concerned that their votes aren’t recorded properly. The verified voting movement wants to put paper back in the process by requiring states to equip electronic voting machines with a printed audit trail. But some voting experts worry that, if the machines and paper continue to come up with different numbers, which has already happened in some municipal and state elections, we could see another presidential election meltdown that might make Florida 2000 look mild in comparison.

Happily, there’s a growing national consensus toward the use of optical scan voting machines, in which voters fill out a paper ballot by filling in bubbles next to candidates’ names. They then feed their ballot into a scanner, which tells them if they’ve made a mistake — and lets them have another chance. Voters can see that their votes were properly counted, and the ballots are kept in case machine malfunction is suspected. Dr. Pfaffenberger said, “After more than a century, the war between those who trust machines and those who trust people seems to be ending, finally. But it’s the voter who’s winning.”

You’ve been listening to the Oscar Show, I’m Jacob Canon. Join us next week as we again delve into the election season, when our topic will be the work of U.Va. cognitive psychologist Dennis Proffitt whose research focuses on creating computer interfaces to help make life more bearable for patients with ALS and other diseases that are the cause of locked-in syndrome.

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