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Big Business in Ballots

With 188,432 U.S. precincts, the demand for fast, secret, dependable systems is great and constant

by Cullen Murphy

THE FEDERAL Election Commission estimates that 90 million Americans will cast ballots for the presidential candidates on November 6. They will do so in any of five ways: by marking paper ballots to be counted by hand, by depressing levers on mechanical devices; by punching cards, to be fed into computers; by filling in squares on printed ballots, to be read and recorded by optical scanners; or by pushing buttons or wielding electronic pencils at the consoles of mini-computers.

In the weeks following the election, salesmen for the dozen or so companies that manufacture the most popular mechanical and electronic "voting systems" will be on the phone to county commissioners and secretaries of state around the country. They will be saying things like "Hey, heard about the mess in Ward 3. Maybe it's time you considered Datavote." Or, "That recount would have been a hell of a lot easier if you'd had the ATS 200M." With 188,432 precincts in the United States, the demand for fast, secret, and dependable methods of voting is both great and constant. Annual sales of voting systems typically run between $25 million and $40 million, and when a big jurisdiction decides to change systems, as Orange County, Florida, did last year, when it switched from lever machines to optical scanners, the figure gets even higher.

Related feature:

Flashback: "What Happens If Nobody Wins?"
In October 1980, Laurence H. Tribe and Thomas M. Rollins considered the possibility of a presidential election "that fails to elect."

The action is not restricted to the United States. The R. F. Shoup Corporation, based in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, recently won a $500 million contract to provide Nigeria with 100,000 mechanical lever machines. The Nigerian government specified a compact system light enough to be transported by camel or canoe and capable of being nailed to a tree. It had to be buoyant, in case the canoe tipped over, and sturdy, in case the camel stumbled. Unfortunately, the military coup in Nigeria last December effectively scotched the deal.

THE FIRST VOTING system was probably a show of hands-- the method employed in ancient Greece. When secrecy was required, Greek voters would declare their sympathies by means of white and black pebbles or marked and unmarked shells. The notion of a secret paper ballot was introduced to the world by South Australia, in 1858, and three out of ten jurisdictions in the United States today-- or roughly ten percent of all registered voters-- still use the so-called Australian ballot. In some states, such as Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Utah, a majority of jurisdictions rely exclusively on the old-fashioned ballot box. Paper ballots, of course, have their drawbacks. For example, when is a vote really a vote? Does it count if you put an X in the square when the instructions say to put a check mark? Which candidate gets the vote if your mark touches more than one box? In contested elections lawyers feud over such issues. Once, during the 1970s, the race for a seat in the Virginia legislature turned on a single absentee ballot. The voter had mistakenly marked too many boxes, crossed out his errors, and, to underline the point, added the words "Do not desire to vote for these two!" Ultimately, a judge disallowed the defaced ballot, and the legislative seat was awarded on the basis of lots drawn from a silver loving cup. The absentee voter's candidate won.

Because paper ballots offer ample opportunities, sometimes seized, for illicit creativity, Jacob Myers invented the mechanical lever machine, which was first used in New York, in 1892. The American Voting Machine Company set up shop before the century was out. This year voters in about 30 percent of all jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, Chicago, and every county and municipality in Connecticut, will use lever machines. All told, one quarter of all voters on Election Day will enter special voting booths, close curtains behind them, depress a black lever next to the name of each preferred candidate, and then turn master levers to register their selections. The votes will be tabulated in much the same way that an odometer keeps track of mileage; no backup record of each citizen's decisions will survive.

While the three chief brands of lever machines are all fairly reliable, no machine is perfect. Once, during the mid 1970s, Montgomery County, Maryland, tested 100 of its lever machines to determine if the mechanical counters correctly tallied votes. The tests revealed an average error rate of five percent; eventually the fault was traced to a defective plastic part. In 1974 at least twelve lever machines were alleged to have malfunctioned in Manchester, New Hampshire. The disputed Manchester tally left Louis C. Wyman and John A. Durkin, otherwise separated by only two votes in their contest for the United States Senate, arguing for months over the outcome. After lengthy Senate hearings Durkin was declared the victor.

Lever machines dominated the voting-systems industry until 1963, when Joseph P. Harris, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, developed his Votomatic Ballot Tally System. Harris's system, a punch-card device, was first used in 1964, in Georgia's Fulton and De Kalb counties; it is manufactured today by Computer Election Systems. Votomatic and other punch-card systems will be used this November in nearly a third of all jurisdictions and by some 60 percent of all voters. The available models vary slightly. In Tuscarawas County, Ohio, for example, a voter places his ballot -- a standard data-processing card -- on a flat tray, and with a punching unit that slides forward and back on a bar he makes holes next to the names of the desired candidates. In Custer County, Montana, however, a voter punches out the appropriate pre-scored boxes with a hand-held stylus. (The tiny, rectangular bits of cardboard that result are called chads, by the way.) When the polls close, the punch-card ballots will be fed into computers at a rate of 800 a minute or faster.

On the whole, punch-card systems work pretty well, although new voters sometimes have trouble figuring out just how to use them. One advantage that punch-card systems have over lever machines is that they leave an "audit trail." That is, the actual ballots can be counted, or recounted, by hand. Sometimes they have to be. In Cook County, Illinois, in 1982, two days of rain caused the punch cards to swell. The counting machine gagged as it sucked the cards in. There was a close race for governor that year, between Adlai E. Stevenson III and the incumbent, James R. Thompson, and the delay in releasing the results prompted angry, though unfounded, charges of ballot-fixing -- a practice once traditional in those parts. (Thompson won the race by 9,401 votes, out of 3,616,865 ballots cast.)

VARIOUS OPTICAL-SCANNING systems have been giving punch-card systems a run for the money of late. A handful of companies, led by Airmac Technology Systems, compete for the market. Together they have sold one jurisdiction in ten on the merits of their machines, and the popularity of optical scanning systems appears to be growing. Perhaps five percent of all U.S. voters will encounter optical scanners this November. With these devices, the voter simply marks up a ballot with a felt-tip pen or a No. 2 pencil, filling in boxes as one might on a standardized test. The ballots are then read and tabulated by a mark-sensing computer. One problem with optical-scanning systems is that they are expensive to operate. This is partly because the black bars, or "timing marks," running along the sides of every ballot have to be printed just so, which costs money. Also the counting is still relatively slow -- usually no more than 200 ballots a minute. And voters often fill in too many squares ("overvote," as election officials say), thereby disqualifying their ballots. Punch-card systems have that problem too.

Purely electronic systems, which as yet claim a negligible share of the business, do not. They can be programmed to warn the careless citizen: "You have voted for too many candidates. Choose only one for each office." Or, alternatively: "You cast no vote for dogcatcher. Was that your intention?" With electronic systems, the ballot pops up on the screen of a computer terminal; voters are put through their paces contest by contest, and the will of the people is retained on magnetic tapes or discs. No audit trail exists on paper, but elaborate safeguards are built in to deter tampering and protect the tally in the event of, say, a blackout. For example, the state-of-the-art Shouptronic system, manufactured by the R. F. Shoup Corporation, runs on batteries: one set to power the processor (for eighteen hours, without recharging), another to hold the result (if necessary, for several years). Even so, the failure of a system like this could give "losing an election" a whole new meaning. Lever machines, of course, entail a similar risk.

I HAVE SEEN EACH of these voting systems, and I like parts of all of them. I like the impersonality of the electronic method. The idea of my vote's being converted into anonymous, unidentifiable electrons is appealing, especially when I remember some of the people I have voted for. I like lever machines because they are so clunky and because standing behind the curtains makes voting seem wonderfully mysterious. It lends to the act the aura of Confession, and I usually enter the voting booth with the same sense of apprehension and emerge with the same reluctance to discuss what has transpired inside. Also, I often feel that penance is due, especially if I have shamelessly voted my pocketbook. I like the punch cards because punching them is fun, and I always wonder how much space the chads would fill if they were collected nationwide. Would they fill a Buick Skylark? The Albert Hall? I have no idea. I like optical scanners because marking the ballots reminds me of how I lucked out on the Latin Achievement portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test; maybe I will luck out in my choice of candidates, too. And I like paper ballots because, in a smaller, better world, that is the way we would all vote -- at the old schoolhouse, slipping envelopes through the slot in a padlocked hardwood box.

My only regret, I suppose, is that one venerable voting system -- the voice vote -- is no longer in use. Wouldn't it be nifty if, on Election Day, November 6, let's say at 10:00 A.M. Central Time, every eligible American voter popped outdoors for a second and, in a clear voice shouted his preference? We could hang a microphone over Kansas.

Copyright © 1984 by Cullen Murphy. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1984; Big Business in Ballots - 84.11; Volume 254, No. 5; page 22-24.