Election Day confusion is nothing new in Md.

WAY BACK WHEN

Voting machines once seen as a big step forward from the paper-ballot era

Back Story

November 04, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Before paper ballots came into use about 1800, Americans voted by placing coins, small balls or bullets into a container. Some candidates were elected on the basis of "yea" or "nay" voice votes.

A uniform paper ballot listing all candidates was based on a ballot first used in Australia in 1856, and so named the Australian ballot, was first used in the U.S. in the 1870s. Its chief benefit was that it guaranteed the voter confidentiality.

Thomas A. Edison invented a voting machine in 1869 that was never used. The first mechanical voting machine in an election in Lockport, N.Y., in 1892, was invented by Jacob C. Myers.

Baltimorean W. Sumpter Black, a machinist and draftsman who worked with Ottmar Mergenthaler on the development of the Linotype machine, also invented a voting machine.

In 1893, Black's invention of a "perfected and improved Australian ballot box" caught the attention of The New York Times.

"When the ballot is placed in the slot it passes between two cylinders. One is rasped, to force it to the bottom of the box, and has letters or marks to designate the ward and precinct in which the vote is cast. The mechanism is worked by the spindle revolution of a crank which also registers the number of each ballot and rings a bell as it is deposited," reported the newspaper.

The ringing bell signaled the election judge and the voter that a ballot had been cast and safely deposited. When the polling place closed, a key was turned that disengaged the machine.

Three years later, an editorial in The Sun supported the use of such machines that were being used with regularity in the North.

"All kinds of virtues are supposed to reside in the voting machine. The ballot-box cannot be stuffed because there is no ballot-box to stuff, and the figures cannot be added up wrong because the machine adds them up, and the machine is infallible," said the editorial.

"These machines may take the place of other and more objectionable political machines. We look next for the use of the phonograph as a substitute for the campaign orator, in connection with the Kinetoscope," the editorial said.

In 1927, a bill proposing that voting machines be used for elections in Baltimore and throughout the state, was introduced in Annapolis. Its sponsors believed that voting machines would save in election costs, enlarge precincts, and speed election results.

It was during the administration of Mayor William F. Broening that the first trial use of 50 voting machines took place Nov. 6, 1928.

"Devices called swell at one poll," reported The Sun, which also said, "The first tests of voting machines in ten precincts of the city yesterday resulted in bringing the first returns into police headquarters within fifty-six minutes after the polls had closed at 5 p.m."

The contract for the use of the machines was later canceled because of difficulties arising out of requirements of state law; meanwhile, Broening continued to press his case for use of the machines.

"The use of voting machines has been acclaimed by all who observed their operation. In the first place, they ensure honesty and accuracy in elections and prevent the spoiling of thousands of ballots," he said.

Machines weren't used in all of Baltimore's precincts until the primary election of 1938.

In a scene eerily reminiscent of the recent September primary, The Sun reported that the election of 1938 was defined by long lines and the refusal of polling judges to enforce the two-minute limit for balloting.

"Little of the confusion was attributed to the voting machines themselves, but much of it was traced to the ignorance of polling officials in charge of the machines," the newspaper reported. "Although these officials had taken numerous training courses conducted by the Board of Supervisors of Elections, some of them did not know how to put the machines in operation when the city's polling places opened at 6 a.m."

However, the use of paper ballots continued throughout much of Maryland. They ended after the Democratic primary in 1954, when gubernatorial candidate, George P. Mahoney, lost the nomination to Dr. H.C. Byrd.

Paper ballots were still in use in many counties, and the voting was extremely close. Mahoney contested the count in many counties in which paper ballots were used, and resultant court cases convinced the legislature that voting machines would simplify the count and provide more accurate results than paper ballots.

Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin signed the bill in 1955 that required the use of voting machines throughout the state by the time of the 1956 general election.

"It is truly an important advance in the march of popular sovereignty in Maryland," he said.

Despite the law, voters in Garrett County were forced in 1956 to use paper ballots after a vendor failed to provide the machines after their purchase by the county was contested.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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