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Machining the Vote: A brief history of lever voting machines

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by Bryan Pfaffenberger, PhD

May 8, 2008

I've received a Scholar's Award from the National Science Foundation to study the history of lever voting machines, a subject that has never been studied by a scholar with professional training in the history of technology (or in any other discipline, for that matter). I am currently writing a book tentatively titled Machining the Vote, which covers the history of lever machines from their invention in 1888 to the bankruptcy of the leading manufacturer, Automatic Voting Corporation, in 1983.

Highlights of my findings:

1. In my analysis, the lever machine deserves recognition as one of the most astonishing achievements of American technological genius, a fact that is reflected in their continued competitiveness against recent voting technologies in every accepted performance measure. With as many as 28,000 parts, their mechanisms reflect an agonizingly difficult period of development, spanning more than twenty years (1888-1919) in which interlocking mechanisms had to be developed that were capable of dealing with the enormous complexity and variety of American elections. The result was a machine that captures in its immutable mechanical operations the voting rules that the American people, in their wisdom, developed in order to capture the will of the people. The mind balks, perhaps, at the suggestion that a century-old technology might be the equal of today's best technologies -- or even superior! -- but the fact is that the lever machine is not alone. U.S. freight railroads continue to use electromechanical signaling systems that were, coincidentally, developed during almost exactly the same frame (1890s-1920). There is no sense of urgency to replace them. Their reliability has been proven in a century of service. They are perfectly adapted to the conditions of American railroading. They are easily understood and maintained by technicians with modest educational backgrounds.

1956 New Yorker cover (Arthur Getz), collecting vote totals from a lever machine

2. Time and again, as I mentioned earlier, lever machines won the confidence of election officials and the public, even when doubts were expressed. I'd enjoy sharing the New York story with the commissioners. By 1925, most of upstate New York was voting on lever machines quite happily, but New York City - led by Tammany Hall Democrats -- resisted. New York's first activist Attorney General, Albert Ottinger, vowed to impose lever machines on the city whether Tammany liked it or not -- and by 1926, they were used throughout much of the city.

The 1926 election proved to Republicans that, contrary to their suspicions, the New York City Board of Elections had been running fairly clean elections -- the much anticipated, 50,000 vote payoff did not materialize. At the same time, Democrats realized that the machines did not amount to a Republican plot, since Democrats won squeaker elections in districts that normally lean Republican. Suddenly, the voting machine controversy in New York City ended abruptly.

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Election officials elsewhere had been watching this drama and, when it reached what all agreed was a happy conclusion, voting machine adoption took off throughout the country. Throughout all the years of the Depression, even, the voting machine business was profitable and AVC paid dividends to shareholders. By 1960, about 60 percent of the voters in the U.S. cast their ballots on the machines.

In that year, of course, Kennedy narrowly defeated Nixon, leaving Republicans convinced that corrupt Democratic election officials in Chicago and Texas were to blame. In Chicago, the controversy was almost entirely focused on the precincts where paper ballots were still in use. In contrast, where lever machines were used, there were few irregularities. Had lever machines been in use throughout Chicago, it is possible that our nation would have survived the 1960 election without generating a politics of payback that continues to this day. 3. Although lever machines do not produce an independent audit trail, this is -- as software engineers say -- a feature, not a bug. In the 1880s and 1890s, paper ballots emerged as the locus par excellence of election fraud; lever machines were expressly designed to take the human element out of every aspect of the vote recording and counting process in order to eliminate fraud that was gravely undermining Americans' confidence in their democracy.

It is quite astonishing to realize that, while the lever machine was under development, inventors came up with just about every voting machine concept that has since been realized, including precinct-scan punchcard technologies, ballot printing machines, and even electromechanical systems that can be seen as predecessors of computerized technologies. All of these technologies produced paper records, however, and all were flatly rejected, both by voters and election officials, as letting the possibility of fraud in through the back door.

Today, there are widespread calls to bring paper back into the picture, but the reason is that people do not trust the machines. [Dr. Pfaffenberger's article is discussed by OEN readers at the link provided.] Having studied the history, I strongly believe that there would be no such call for paper if the ugly history of fraudulent practices enabled by paper ballots were known -- unfortunately, the American people have forgotten the lessons they learned a century ago, and I greatly fear that we will have to repeat them in order to learn them again.

The truth of the matter is that our American election system, in contrast, to the election administration systems of most advanced democracies, is inordinately decentralized, less than professionally administered in many instances, and politicized. In New York, the people, in their wisdom, created a system of election administration AND a technology that solved the characteristic problems of American elections; to abandon lever machines for new technologies that will not gain voter confidence and, at the same time, re-introduce paper audit trails or paper ballots which have long proven to be prone to election fraud, amounts in my opinion to a potentially disastrous mistake. Bryan Pfaffenberger Department of Science, Technology, & Society University of Virginia

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Bryan Pfaffenberger photo by Dan Addison

Brief Bio of Professor Pfaffenberger:

An anthropologist by training (Ph.D.: University of California, Berkeley, 1977), Bryan Pfaffenberger has been committed to science and technology studies for more than two decades and has received international recognition for his scholarly work in STS. He is the winner of the Albert Payson Usher prize (1989) for this essay, "The Harsh Facts of Hydraulics: Technology and Society in Sri Lanka's Colonization Schemes" (Technology and Culture) and the American Society for Information Science's Book of the Year award for Democratizing Information (G..K. Hall, 1989). In addition, he continues to work in the anthropology of technology, recently described by a leading anthropologist as the first successful new subfield of anthropology to have been created in a quarter of a century. His work, including a key 1994 essay titled "The Social Anthropology of Technology" (Annual Review of Anthropology), helped both to create the new subfield and provide it with rich theoretical tools. Pfaffenberger's current interests focus on the social analysis of computing, including electronic voting and the impact of a rapidly expanding U.S. intellectual property regime on engineering, science, and technology.

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In 2004, Rady Ananda joined the growing community of citizen journalists. Initially focused on elections, she investigated the 2004 Ohio election, organizing, training and leading several forays into counties to photograph the 2004 ballots. She officially served at three recounts, including the 2004 recount. She also organized and led the team that audited Franklin County Ohio's 2006 election, proving the number of voter signatures did not match official results. Her work appears in three books.

Her blogs also address religious, gender, sexual and racial equality, as well as environmental issues; and are sprinkled with book and film reviews on various topics. She spent most of her working life as a researcher or investigator for private lawyers, and five years as an editor.

She graduated from The Ohio State University's School of Agriculture in December 2003 with a B.S. in Natural Resources.

All material offered here is the property of Rady Ananda, copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Permission is granted to repost, with proper attribution including the original link.

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Tell the truth anyway.

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Thanks for reposting this, Rady, it is fascinating... by Meryl Ann Butler on Saturday, Jun 28, 2008 at 1:43:37 PM
we have a team working on some related articles, r... by Rady Ananda on Saturday, Jun 28, 2008 at 1:56:28 PM
 Fascinating subject, voting methods and mech... by Mark E. Smith on Saturday, Jun 28, 2008 at 6:28:24 PM
thanks for being open minded, Mark.  I know y... by Rady Ananda on Saturday, Jun 28, 2008 at 8:17:59 PM
But I have a few questions. Looking at the graphic... by Mark E. Smith on Saturday, Jun 28, 2008 at 11:04:45 PM
I can't cide specific code today, altho a NY e... by Rady Ananda on Sunday, Jun 29, 2008 at 12:42:49 AM
Never touched by human hands. As a child I couldn... by Margaret Bassett on Sunday, Jun 29, 2008 at 2:17:38 PM
you raise many interesting points... and each coul... by Rady Ananda on Sunday, Jun 29, 2008 at 2:40:48 PM
Whether in HCPB or supervising voting machines we ... by Keith Mothersson on Sunday, Jun 29, 2008 at 2:49:48 PM
wow, thanks for posting this, Keith ~ I can live w... by Rady Ananda on Sunday, Jun 29, 2008 at 3:20:03 PM