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October 27, 2008

1936: Counting America's 40,000,000 Votes

By Rady Ananda

This 70-yr-old article from Modern Mechanix Hobbies & Inventions peeks at the lever voting machine, and voting systems dating back to ancient Athens.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This paper contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my effort to advance understanding of voting system issues. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. §107, the material in this paper is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this paper for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. 

For the full pictorial spread of this article, including a much clearer photo of a clay ballot from ancient Greece, click here.  An equally poor facsimile of the "up-to-the-minute" 1936 mechanical lever voting machine from the 1936 article is produced below.  The remaining lever photos are from my own collection, and show the historical development of the lever voting machine.  


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The Automatic Voting Machine Corporation highlighted in this article produced "nearly all the [lever] machines" used in 1936.  Through the convoluted morph of corporate ownership and name changes, the firm was bought; renamed; sold and renamed again, now infamously known as Sequoia Voting Systems, whose software driven machines failed spectacularly this year in New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and Palm Beach County, Florida.  Sequoia tries to claim some of the glory of lever reliability simply because Sequoia bought the company that bought AVM.  That's like me claiming to be a world explorer because my ancestor, William Bradford, sailed here on the Mayflower. 

AVM made such a superior product that it ran itself out of business, since the machines, once purchased, required only occasional minor parts to maintain. In fact, the sixty-year-old lever machines in use in New York today "will last another hundred years," reported a lever technician.  From his lips to God's ears.  Lever lovers have launched a campaign to save them, having rejected the software driven systems that provide us with secret vote counting on software that can be altered without detection. 

In the article title, writer Tom Mahoney confuses ballots with votes.  A single ballot can contain several votes – depending on the number of races and issues a voter faces.  His article is fascinating and important for all those involved in election research.

Modern Mechanix Hobbies & Inventions, November 1936
By Tom Mahoney

NEWS of the election of George Washington as first president of the United States was borne by stagecoach in 1789 throughout the country in about three weeks. Barring a close division of the 40,000,000 voters, the outcome of the current contest of .Franklin D. Roosevelt and Alfred M. Landon will be made known to a far vaster country in about three hours after the polls close on Nov. 3. This miracle is made possible by the inclusion unofficially in the archaic Electoral system, itself little changed since Washington's day, of every device evolved for the counting of votes and the transmission of results. Ingenious voting machines record and count votes at the same time. Adding machines produce instant totals. Motorcycles, telegraph lines, telephones, press association wires, newspapers, and radio stations distribute the results at a speed unequalled in any other country.

Registration figures in cities where this is required indicate that at least a million, possibly four million, more citizens than the 39,816,522 who voted in 1932 will vote this fall. Chicago has a registration this fall of 1,612,173 against 1,429,774 in 1932. In Philadelphia, the figure has increased from 646,564 to 808,644. Milwaukee, Buffalo and San Francisco have record registrations. Counting machinery, however, has increased with the voters. There will be more voting machines in use this fall than ever before. Election figures are born in the east and speed westward faster than the sun. The Massachusetts village of New Ashford takes pride in being the first community in the country to report its vote. In the face of competition from Mount Washington and other neighbors, New Ashford has been first with figures for the last five Presidential elections. In 1932, two of New Bedford's 34 voters were in the hospital but the remainder began to vote at 5:45 a. m. and at 6:28 a. m., two minutes earlier than in 1928, and while most citizens were still in bed, the count: Hoover 30, Roosevelt 8, was flashed to the country.

Figures from other small points appear on the wires in the course of the day but the first totals of great importance come from the city and state of New York. The election is decided by electoral votes, one for each Senator and Representative, and New York State has 47 of these, the most of any state. In 20 years no candidate has lost New York and won a presidential election.

All of New York City's 2,225,000 votes are recorded by 4,300 voting machines and something like four-fifths of the 2,000,000 upstate residents vote in the same manner. In the metropolis, policemen stationed at each voting place rush the totals to precinct stations where reporters for the City News Association, the local news gathering organization of the New York newspapers, collate them and transmit them to the newspaper offices. So rapidly is this done that most of the figures are known within an hour or two after the polls close and the complete results are known before midnight. Police help on the upstate figures. In Buffalo, motorcycle officers speed from the edge to the center of the city snatching sheets of totals as they ride. With candidates numerous, and over 218,000 voting, the complete Buffalo vote has been compiled in less than 90 minutes.

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The New York totals are made possible by the voting machines. Though used in the metropolis only since 1925, the state has long been the center of voting machine development and use. The first machine used, then known as the Myers Ballot machine, made its appearance in Lockport, N. Y., home of the maker in 1892. Two years later, Rochester and Cazenovia, N. Y., tried the experiment. Buffalo and three more cities followed in 1899. At present 95 per cent of the 30,000 machines in service in 3,500 communities throughout the country are products of the Jamestown, N. Y., factory of the Automatic Voting Machine Corporation.

Voting methods underwent few changes in the 25 centuries prior to the development of the voting machines. Assemblies in ancient Sparta announced their opinions by shouting and beating on shields. Athenians of 500 B. C. voted by a show of hands except on the question of exiling a citizen deemed dangerous to the state. In this case, a secret vote was recorded on a clay ballot. Excavators of the American School of Classical Studies recently uncovered 150 of these at Athens, several bearing the names of Aristides. Early Romans used wax-covered slips of wood as ballots.

Early American voting was about as public as that of Greece and Rome. Up to around 1890 most polling places were surrounded by persuasive and often belligerent persons who forced party ballots on the voter and watched him put them in the box. Employers and political bosses stood about to intimidate the voter. The Australian ballot, so-called because it was first used in South Australia in 1856, substituted a single official one for the many ballots and provided secrecy for its casting. At least five per cent of the ballots under this system, however, are almost invariably improperly marked and are supposed to be thrown out. The possibility of error or fraud, and the unavoidable delay of counting persisted.

Inventors of the voting machine undertook to eliminate these factors. First man to give the problem attention appears to have been Jan Josef Baranowski in Paris, France, in 1849. He suggested that adding machine principles be applied to voting and that a closet be provided in which the voter could make his choice by turning handles or pushing buttons opposite the names of candidates. De Brettes in that year and Werner von Siemens in 1859 in Germany constructed primitive legislative voting machines, operated mechanically to cast either white or black balls. Thomas Edison patented a crude machine in 1869. At about the same time, Vassie, Chamberlain, Sydserff and Davy produced devices in England. All involved balls which had to be counted.

Machines combining voting and counting did not appear until the last years of the 19th century. One of the first was that of Father Vito Leto, a priest at Cimmina, Sicily, with several railroad signal devices to his credit. His device was a box supported by a pedestal and divided into compartments according to the number of candidates. A fitted stylet turned the counting mechanism and a bell rang. Better machines were produced in America by Myers, Bardwell, Abbott and Dean, all using mechanical counters. One made by McTammany had a separate key for each candidate. Holes in a paper web were counted by a pneumatic machine.

These were of varying merit and a few failed so dismally that cities which tried them after 40 years refuse to use machines. The best features of the group, augmented by the notable roller interlock invented by Frank Keiper, survive today in the sturdy machine made at Jamestown. This machine contains 13,000 parts and can be manufactured only at the rate of 10 per day. When Mayor Jimmy Walker ordered 2,000 machines shipped "by airplane" to New York City in time for the 1927 city election, the factory could not supply them.

The machine is a mechanical duplicate of an Australian ballot. Candidates' names, with a lever by each, extend across the face of the machine in a curtained booth. There is a row for each party and in many states the entire party ticket may be selected by a lever at the left. After placing the indicators in position, the voter records his choice by pulling an overhead lever. This brings the indicators back to position, records and counts the vote, and throws back the curtains. In New York, voters are allowed to spend three minutes at the machines and until they pull the voting lever they can move the indicators about as much as they please. In Connecticut, where party levers are allowed, the time limit is one minute.

Smallest machines now made, selling for $860, have space for the names of 270 candidates. The largest machines will record the votes of nine parties of 70 candidates each, at the same time, provide space for voting on 35 questions or amendments. A machine of this size contains 700 counters in addition to the protective counters showing the total vote. A horizontal paper roll is included to permit the "writing" of candidates whose names do not appear on the keyboard. It is impossible to vote for two candidates for the same office and, if party watchers are alert, the total vote counter and protective counter prevent anyone voting more than once.

Advantages of machines are: (1) a mechanically accurate count, eliminating human error; (2) immediate election returns; (3) elimination of soiled and defective ballots; (4) a permanent record which eliminates expensive recounts and contests; (5) absolute secrecy assured the voter; (6) a reduction in election expenses.

These factors have caused labor unions, whose elections in the past have been matters of great dispute, to adopt the machines. Upwards of 50 unions, principally in New York, Detroit and Cleveland, rent machines for their voting. The University of Buffalo, Pennsylvania State College and George Washington University use machines for student elections.

Where machines are not used, election work is only half done when the votes are cast. They must then be counted with some clerks calling the names and others tallying them. It is a matter of many hours work in larger precincts. Though Boston has but a fifth of the New York City vote, absence of voting machines makes a complete total for the city almost a 48-hour job. A complete Chicago count takes about 24 hours. Despite an efficient police reporting system directed by Walter Gaedke, secretary of the city election commission, 10 to 12 hours are required to gather all of Milwaukee's 250,000 votes. The city tried and discarded machines in 1903. The Milwaukee Journal is urging their return as an economy measure. A day and a half is often required to count Detroit's half million votes.

In most sections, the compilation of state totals, which determines to whom the important electoral votes go, are left to the press associations, the United Press, Associated Press and the International News Service. In Texas, however, all of the client and member papers of these services cooperate in the Texas Election Bureau of which A. F. Henning is manager. A former Dallas News man and professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University, he has devised a system of reporting and counting which produces totals faster than in many smaller states. The bureau's 254 correspondents are given sets of blanks to telegraph at stages of the count to headquarters in the Dallas News. Prizes are offered for the first blank of each set received. The big test of the bureau is the Democratic primary. Last July, 53 per cent of the vast state's million votes were compiled election night. Counting will be expepedited this fall by use for the first time of 130 voting machines in Dallas.

A notable job of California vote compiling is done by the organization of Registrar William M. Kerr of Los Angeles County where registration this year totals 1,281,590, over 43 per cent of the registration of the state. Voting machines are lacking and two days are required to get in the outlying boxes but so efficient is Kerr's arrangement that the trend is usually established within two or three hours. This semi-official count is made by 40 central bureaus scattered among the 4,295 precincts. The bureaus telephone partial totals to Registrar Kerr's office and he compiles the figures for the newspapers. The length of primary ballots discourages the use of machines in California, officials say.

The three press associations compile totals at state bureaus, usually in the state capital, and these, with contests of any local or state interest eliminated, are transmitted to divisional centers. The principal of these are Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, San Francisco and Boston. From these centers, the figures speed to a central compiling point for the service. Until 1932, this was New York for all three systems. In that year, however, the Associated Press chose to gather the figures in Washington and will do so again this year.

The telegraph, telephone and radio all were utilized for the transmission of election news as soon as the facilities became available. Radio Station WWJ of the Detroit News broadcast the first election news in the current manner in announcing the results of the Michigan primary election Aug. 31, 1920. On Nov. 2 of the same year, the famous Westinghouse station, KDKA, broadcast news of the election of President Harding. This November virtually every broadcasting station in the country will announce election figures. 

Submitters Bio:

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.