1889: Introducing Voting Machines

Tomorrow is election day, and this year New York has done away with its old election machines in favor of paper ballots. The transition is causing a bit of confusion. For many old time New Yorkers, tomorrow will be the first time voting on paper, and not in a Myers Automatic Booth like the one introduced more than 120 years ago.

Way back on November 24, 1889, The New York Times ran an article titled “VOTING BY MACHINERY: An Ingenious Reform Device Invented By A Rochester Man” (PDF) which described something very similar to the now-familiar booth:

Once inside the door the voter would find before him a curious-looking wall, having the appearance of a telephone switchboard, but with knobs instead of drops.

Mr. Myers proposes to give each party a distinctive color, which it would be expected to retain during its party life. The Republican Party, for instance, might be designated by red, the Democratic by yellow, the Prohibitionist by blue, the Socialist by brown, and so on to the end fo the list. The man who could neither read nor write could then vote a straight party ticket without difficulty, provided he was not color blind. The voter would then find before him rows of tickets, each row proceeding down from a large piece of pasteboard of the same color as the tickets under it and bearing the name of the party…

If the voter is an old-fashioned Republican or Democrat who never splits his ticket, he selects the red or yellow, as the case may be, and presses all the knobs under that color. A knob once pressed inward cannot be drawn out again while the man is in the voting booth, and by an ingenious but simple contrivance Mr. Myers has made it impossible for two knobs for Governor or Congressman or any other office to be depressed at the same time.

Having pressed the knobs of all the candidates for whom he desires and is permitted to vote, the voter passes out at a second door and finds before him a third door, which he cannot open until he has closed the second. He then finds himself entirely cut off from the little compartment where the voting was done. The act of closing the second door raises a lever that in turn operates other levers, which release the depressed buttons or knobs that the voter has pressed.

Having grown up hearing the phrase “pull the lever for” as a synonym for “vote for,” I always wondered what that meant exactly. The first few elections I voted in used butterfly ballots, and I was disappointed that there was no lever. Once I moved to New York, though, I came to enjoy the clunky mechanical ka-chunk! of the big lever that registers your votes.

On November 6, 1901, the Times ran another article about voting machines after the first trial in an election. This time the headline read, “VOTING MACHINE WAS PRONOUNCED A SUCCESS; Told Result in a Brooklyn District Two Minutes After 5 o’clock.” (PDF)

The voting machine, which was used for the first time in Brooklyn, in the Eighteenth Election District of the First Assembly District yesterday, proved a pronounced success in one respect at least — in the promptness with which it made known the total vote cast in the district. The entire results of the voting was known two minutes after the polls closed at 5 o’clock…

“If New York City goes another year without placing voting machines in every election district,” said [Lieutenant Governor] Woodruff, “it will be a shame and an outrage on the people. I have just come from another election district, and when I left there the Inspectors hadn’t even gotten the ballots unfolded. Here the entire work of counting the vote is already completed.”

…The poll clerks figured out that the average time taken by each voter in voting with the machine was eighteen seconds. As a rule, those who voted split tickets occupied more time in the booth than the voters who voted the straight tickets. Each voter was allowed one minute’s time in the booth, whereas under the prevailing system of voting a voter is allowed to remain in the booth five minutes.

The test of the voting machine yesterday was made in the election district in which Elections Commissioner Michael J. Dady lives. He was the first man to vote, registering his choice of candidates in just three seconds.

By paper or by machine, don’t forget to vote tomorrow!

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