The voting machine, a device designed to present a simulated ballot to voters, to register their votes, and to tally them automatically, was invented in 1848 by an English inventor named William Chamberlain, Jr., and adapted to American election practices by a Chicago inventor named Anthony C. Beranek in 1881. But the first voting machine to be manufactured and actually used in an election is a product of the fertile inventive climate of Rochester in the late 1880s.
Jacob H. Myers (1841-1920), an inventor who held numerous agricultural machinery patents and specialized in designing burglar-proof safes, drew on Chamberlain and Beranek's pioneering work to design the American Ballot Machine, which Myers revealed to the public in November, 1889.
Myers, a well-to-do Democrat, conceived his invention while following the debate over New York's adoption of the Australian secret ballot system, which election reformers believed would put an end to the notoriously corrupt election practices characteristic of New York City under Tammany Hall's leadership. Because the secret ballot compels voters to vote in secret, the reformers believed that the Australian system would put an end to vote buying. Vote buyers would be unable to see whether the voter performed his end of the bargain. But Governor David B. Hill, a Democrat, opposed the Australian ballot system. Hill knew that the election reformers harbored ill-concealed prejudices against foreign-born voters, many of whom were illiterate or were literate in a language other than English. Because the Australian system requires literacy, it would close the polls to tens of thousands of Democratic voters.
Myers designed his voting machine to accomplish two purposes. First, it would compel secret voting. Second, it would enable illiterate voters to cast their votes without assistance.
To compel secret voting, Myers designed his machine around large booth or cabinet, equipped with three self-locking doors. Once a voter entered, the entrance door locked behind him. He accomplished his vote in the voting compartment. After voting, the voter had nowhere to go but to pass through the internal door which, when it closed, prevented him from returning into the voting compartment. Closing the internal door unlocked the exit door. When the voter opened the exit door, the mechanism released the lock on the entry door, sounded a bell, and made the machine ready for the next voter.
To enable illiterate voters to cast their votes without assistance, Myer's machine employed a keyboard comprising a matrix of columns (for parties) and rows (for offices). All of a party's candidates were arranged in a vertical column of push-keys, beginning with the highest office at the top. The cardboard placards indicating the name of the party and the name and office of each candidate were printed in a distinctive color. All of the candidates for a given office would be found in a single horizontal row, across the face of the keyboard. A diagram showing this arrangement was posted outside the machine, where voters could study it before entering the machine to vote. If an illiterate voter wished to vote a straight party ticket, he could do so without difficulty by entering the machine, finding his preferred party's column, and activating the straight-party ticket lever at the top of the column. Suppose he wished to split his ticket. He wished to vote for the Republican candidates for all offices except Mayor, for which he preferred the Democrat. By asking someone to explain where the mayor row was located on the diagram posted outside, he would learn, for example, that the mayor row was the fourth down from the top. Inside, he could then vote for all the Republican candidates (red column) except the one running for Mayor. He would then locate the Democratic column (blue), count down four, and cast his vote by pushing the push-key.
Unlike the Australian ballot system, which typically resulted in hundreds or even thousands of invalidated ballots due to voter errors, the Myers machine was designed to capture every voter's intentions and to prevent common errors. Because the push-keys locked in place after being depressed, voters could not vote more than once for the same candidate. A sophisticated interlocking system prevented them from overvoting, voting for more candidates for an office than the law permitted.
Because Myers' machine protected poor, immigrant, and working class voters from intimidation while protecting their right to vote, he liked to call it the "Poor Man's Voting Machine."
Myers' design struck a respondent chord. Newspapers around the nation praised it for compelling secrecy without punishing illiterate voters. It was called the "inventive triumph of its age," and attracted strong bipartisan support. In 1890, Rochester investors of both political persuasions provided the capital for the Myers American Ballot Machine Co., and Jacob Myers was elected as president. A bill that established the legal basis for its use in town elections was introduced in the New York Senate by Senator Donald McNaughton, a Democrat. Remarkably, in a time of bitter partisanship, it passed the Senate unanimously, and received a large bipartisan majority in the Assembly. It was signed into law in March, 1892.
In April 1892, Myers' machine was used for the first time in an election, which took place in Lockport, New York. Long run by Democratic political bosses, voters of both parties were fed up with the town's government and urged the common council to adopt the machine. They agreed. The election went smoothly. Although Democrats were in the majority, voters tossed out the Democratic machine's candidates in favor of Republican reformers. Lockport went on to become a leader in the municipal reform movement.
The Lockport results created great enthusiasm for Myers' machine, which was installed in dozens of towns throughout upstate New York in 1893. In 1894, a new law enabled its use in elections for county supervisors. In the same year, New York voters approved a constitutional amendment enabling the use of Myers' machine in all state elections.
The city of Rochester hoped to be the first American city to install voting machines citywide. Although Myers had competition from the United States Voting Machine Co., founded by a former employee of his named Sylvanus E. Davis, the Myers' machine won the contract, and Myers voting machines were installed throughout the city in time for the 1896 election.
Unfortunately, the Rochester experiment went poorly. Some of the machines lost dozens or hundreds of votes. A Democratic candidate for Alderman, Jacob Gerling, became convinced that he lost the election because the Republican election officials had "tweaked" the machine to defeat him. Gerling persuaded many Democrats to oppose voting machines. Another losing candidate filed a lawsuit. Myers' board of directors shut down the factory and fired Myers. Rochester decided to return the machines. Myers' company was liquidated the next year. Crushed by his company's actions, Myers departed the next year for the Yukon, where his search for gold met with little success. He returned to Rochester and died, his achievements all but forgotten, in 1920. He is buried in
Mt. Hope Cemetery (Range 4, Lot 68).
The problems were caused by a flaw in Myers' design. He used thousands of springs, some of them pushing against each other. The machine would work perfectly at first. But after corrosion set in, it would inevitably get out of order. Davis recognized the problem and designed his machine using direct, positive action, with no springs.
The first successful election in Rochester using voting machines occurred in 1898. The machines were not those made by Davis, whose company had moved to Jamestown. Instead, Rochester used the Standard Voting Machine, based on the patents of an Iowa inventor named Alfred J. Gillespie. With his patents in hand, Gillespie had moved to Rochester in the wake of the 1896 fiasco. He persuaded the proprietors of Yawman & Erbe, a Rochester manufacturer of business machines, to invest in a new company and manufacture his machine. The Standard Voting Machine Co.'s attorney, Frank Church, purchased the patents of the Myers company in 1897, but Gillespie's design was new. It was the first that enabled voters to change their votes before they were finalized. In addition, Gillespie dispensed with the booth in favor of a privacy curtain. Closing the curtain activated the machine. When a voter was happy with his choices, he pulled a large lever, which opened the curtain and recorded his votes. In 1898, the Standard machine was installed citywide in Rochester and Buffalo. This time, the experiment was successful. Newspapers nationwide proclaimed the beginning of the voting machine era.
The Standard company was short-lived. Just after the 1898 election, the United States Voting Machine Co. filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Standard. In part to settle this suit, Rochester and Jamestown investors formed the United States Standard Voting Machine Co. in 1900, and purchased the patents of both of the former companies. Although Davis's patents were purchased, the new company chose to manufacture an improved version of Gillespie machine, employing the Jamestown factory for production. Eventually, the new company became the Automatic Voting Machine Co., which dominated the lever voting machine industry until its bankruptcy in 1983.
Notes and References
The above article was submitted on Jan 2nd, 2009 by Bryan Pfaffenberger with the notation that it was based on his research. The original article provided no references or sources.
A Brief Illustrated History of Voting by Douglas W. Jones, THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA Department of Computer Science. The article supports some of the material in this article.
The Gear and Lever Voting Machine On American History at the Smithsonian
Myers Biographic Info on ProCon.org
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