Ballots in America

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Since the country's colonial days, concerns of voter fraud have inspired ever-more complicated ways to cast one's ballot. Depending on where you live, you may vote tomorrow with a lever, a punch card, a marker or a touchscreen. As election scholar Andrew Gumbel notes, the U.S. has been both a "living experiment in the expansion of democratic rights" and a "world-class laboratory for vote suppression and election-stealing techniques."

The word ballot comes from the Italian word for small ball, ballotta, evoking the bygone practice of using colored shells or beads to cast votes. (The dreaded black ball indicated a "No" vote in ancient Greece). Early American ballots, on the other hand, mostly came in the form of one's voice. Men simply shouted their choice in public, a process known as vica voce. Though it alleviated concerns of illiteracy, the method encouraged intimidation and fraud. One of the most common forms of manipulation involved plying voters with free booze. Even Thomas Jefferson let his campaign dispense liquor on Election Day, explaining that rum, wine, brandy and beer merely rewarded the "People" (read: white, property-owning males) for their time and patience.

Corruption also plagued paper ballots. For the better part of the 19th century they were more likely to be destroyed or manipulated than counted. In 1850's New York, party chieftain Boss Tweed used "floaters" to vote at several polling places across the city, "repeaters" to visit the same polling place more than once, and "plug-uglies" (thugs from Baltimore) to intimidate voters all over the city. The fake voters exploited the names of children, the deceased, even fictional characters. In 1869, 21-year-old Thomas Edison patented the design of a "switch-and-lever" voting machine, but he couldn't find any buyers. The status quo suited politicians just fine.

One of the first companies to sell lever-voting technology created a national ad campaign in 1959 called "Behind the Freedom Curtain." "You will register and count your own vote!" The ad proclaimed."Mechanical counters cannot get tired, cannot get cranky, cannot forget!" Evidently, the lever technology needed such aggressive commercials — fifteen states that had adopted the device since its mass production in 1892 had returned them by 1929, calling them too complicated, too expensive and too difficult to keep in working order.

In the early 1960s, University of California at Berkley professor Joseph Harris suggested applying to ballots the punch-card method used by early computers — setting the stage for the hanging chad controversy of the 2000 elections. The '60s also saw the introduction of the optical-scan ballot, which borrowed IBM technology traditionally used to score standardized tests like the SAT.

The latest crop of voting innovations are not flawless either. "Direct-recording electronic" (DRE) equipment like touchscreens don't leave a verifiable paper trail. During a 2006 congressional race in Florida's 13th district, where DRE equipment is used, an astonishing 15% of voters cast their ballots for ... well, no one. According to the ballot results, some 18,000 voters hadn't registered a choice at all. That the election was determined by less than 400 votes made the lack of tangible records even more troubling. Florida Republican Governor Charlie Crist wants to scrap such machines, saying, "I get a receipt when I go to the bank or get gas, so why not for the most precious thing we have — the vote?" Though legislation was introduced last February requiring hard copies for "e-voting" results, Congress has yet to vote on the bill (known as the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007).

Three main companies dominate the voting-machine market today: Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Sequoia Voting Systems, and Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold Election Systems), all of which have been accused of facilitating — or participating in — fraud. Diebold renamed itself in 2007 following the resignation of its chief executive, Walden O'Dell, over a fund-raising letter sent before the 2004 election stating that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President."

But if corruption and invisible malware mean the destruction of voter confidence in the ballot, Internet transparency might be the solution. PBS and Youtube have partnered up to create, a project that encourages voters to document their Election Day experiences. Of course, there's just one problem: some states haved outlawed the practice.