By Wendy Underhill
The lead story in NCSL’s elections newsletter, The Canvass, is entitled, “Online Voting: Not Ready for Prime Time?” It’s about how advocates would like to see more R & D on Internet voting as a way to make it easier for military voters to cast their ballots—and have them count. Other advocates say research is fine, but let’s not get the cart before the horse—for now, Internet voting is not secure.
Jacob H. Myers, a maker of safes, received a series of patents beginning in 1889 for gear-and-lever technology. He is often cited as saying that his mechanical system would "protect mechanically the voter from rascaldom, and make the process of casting the ballot perfectly plain, simple and secret." This system debuted in 1892, and continued in use into the 21st century.
PBS’s Newshour posted an article some time ago about the history of voting technology, and here’s an excerpt about Myers’ machines:
Mechanical lever vote-counting machines, like the one Myers invented, used a rotary device similar to a car's odometer, and eliminated the need for paper ballots. These machines kept a running tally of each vote. Myers and supporters who promoted the new system argued that once the counting process started, human hands could not easily influence the count.
Mechanical lever machines were first used in Rochester, New York in 1892. By the mid-20th century, most localities in the United States used the mechanical lever machines.
Mechanical vote-counting machines, however, had their own weaknesses. Like all things mechanical, they were vulnerable to internal breakdown. Moreover, if a machine broke down, it was not always clear when the malfunction occurred, causing uncertainty during the final vote count.
A person with enough technical know-how could also tamper with the machines and affect the tally. If an election's validity was questioned, lever machines left no record of an individual voter's intent, making a vote-by-vote recount impossible.
The point: any new technology is bound to produce a few glitches.
For more on the history of voting technology, enjoy the online exhibit, The Machinery of Democracy, from the Smithsonian and procon.org’s Historical Timeline: Electronic Voting Machines and Related Voting Technology.