Today, we cast our vote. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Who do you want for
governor, judge, and county clerk? People have
killed and died for the right to choose. But there
are so many of us and so much room for error and
conniving. In an old Pat and Mike story, Pat asks
Mike if he's voted yet. "Sure and I've voted three
times already today," Mike answers.
Polling booth fraud ran rampant in the 19th
century. It was far worse than Mike's voting three
times or citizens from the local cemetery showing
up on ballots. That sort of thing paled when thugs
stole whole boxes of votes and destroyed opposition
ballots. Written ballots are very vulnerable.
European inventors began working on voting machines
in the mid 1800s. The first workable system came
along in 1868, and it served a smaller public. It
was also the first patent by a 21-year-old
telegraph operator named Thomas Edison. Edison
looked at the Pat and Mike politics in Congress.
Voice votes took 45 minutes. All the while,
senators swapped votes with each other.
Edison set up an electric tally system. It worked
perfectly. When it was time to vote, each senator
pushed a button. But Washington wouldn't buy it --
at least not then. Filibusters and vote delays were
too much a part of their business.
By the 1890s we had workable public polling
machines. In 1891 New York state made it legal to
use the new Myers Automatic Booth. But voting
machines were pretty hi-tech for the rough and
tumble of the old precincts. Their use still
stuttered along 30 years later.
In the early machines voters pulled levers. The
levers advanced counters inside. Inspectors zeroed
the counters before the election and read them
afterward. Of course, fraud didn't go away. One
trick was to switch the lever linkages in precincts
where a candidate was losing.
Nevertheless, machines were the only solution. One
by one, cities in New York state wrote laws
requiring voting machines. Since then the scale and
speed of machine-voting has grown steadily. Of
course, our machines are now tied to computers. The
vote thief we worry about today is the computer
Voting machines remind us that voting, like the
democracy it reflects, is large and clumsy. Without
machines the process would founder. They remind us
that we don't use democracy because it's clean and
simple. If that's all we wanted, a dictator would
suit us. Elections may leave almost half of us
unsatisfied. Yet they're the only means by which we
all live in agreement.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds