Brief History of Vote-Casting

How Is Your Voice Heard?: A Quick History of Casting a Vote

Seth Miller, December 2014

Here in the United States, the general public has the idea that voting has been as it is today for the entirety of the country’s history. However, this could not be farther from the truth. The history of casting a vote is just as much of a journey as any other aspect in our country’s rich history. Voting today is a civic duty that all would be wise to take part in, yet many do not. Exclusions, carefully worded laws, and ever changing technology have taken many in this great country on a wild ride that most people today simply do not know about. Can a simple crash course in the history of voting be enough to enlighten non-voters into voting?

A proper beginning would be to acknowledge that at our country’s inception only a small percentage of persons were allowed to vote. Many are aware of the plight of African Americans and women and voting, but many other groups of people were barred from the polls early on. When crafting the new laws of what would become the United States, early Americans used voting credentials from what they knew back in England. White, adult males who owned land of a certain worth were often the only people allowed to vote. As you might assume, in a country where many men’s occupations were of small time businesses such as haberdasher, blacksmith or a farmer and never truly owned the land where they lived or worked, the voter pool was made up of the upper most crust of society. By keeping property, residency, and literacy requirements they were able to keep many people disenfranchised. The noted English lawyer Sir William Blackstone went so far as to say that “…with regard to property, in voters, is to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. If these persons had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some influence or another…” [1]. The idea that “weaker” men would simply bend to the will of more “powerful” ones was shared by people other that Blackstone and it took some time before the right to vote began to spread to more and more people. By the mid 1800’s with the country’s population on the incline, some of the many restrictions on white men began to lift. It would be some time for other groups like African Americans (1869), women (1920), Asians (1965), Native Americans (1965), and other European immigrants (1965). [2]

Another misconception of American voting is the idea that the secret vote has always been around. A truly confidential vote is a fairly recent concept in the grand scheme of our voting history. The least confidential was the voice vote, which is exactly how it sounds; a voter would make a public, verbal announcement of his voting intentions. In early America there were different ways of this simple style of voting. One method was to have the candidates stand at the head of the room and call up individual voters to cast their vote. The individual would say the name of the candidate they desired and that candidate would bow in gracious acceptance of a vote in their favor. Other variations on the method included a roll call where a name was called and a response was given to a particular question. Sometimes a large numbers of voters would all speak if the “all in favor” question was asked. This seems odd in today’s world where many people shy away from talking politics in everyday conversations out of a fear that the conversation will become heated. However in the 1800’s this was common fare. With politics as common a conversation topic as the weather, many could gather other’s voting intention before it was made public. The verbal vote did lend to a certain amount of intimidation. The human need to feel included left the option for individuals to vote with a group rather than their own conscience. For example, to not be ostracized by one’s workplace or church one might vote with the majority and election outcome could therefore not be a true representation of the area’s political climate.

The verbal method of voting eventually fell out of fashion as paper ballots made their way into politics. A voter would take the ticket of who they were choosing to vote for and use that to cast their ballot. Tickets would be different colors and have different metaphorical images on them depending on the election and/or issues. However, there was no standardization for the ticket when they began to be used as a voting means. Each political party usually had control over their own tickets, leaving almost everything from the image, color and even paper thickness subject to change. [3] This caused confusion among the voting public as well as voter fraud. Dirty politicians or officials could very easily mimic or declare tickets to be “unauthentic” because they did not meet certain qualifications. Paper ballots also lent themselves to the the rise of absentee voting. Popular in the presidential election of 1860, Union soldiers could cast their votes which were then recorded into poll books. The poll books kept a “secure” record of how many absentee votes were cast and the region in which they should be tallied.[4]

With paper ballots came the necessity for new inventions to hold and record the party tickets. Ballot boxes were originally simple wooden boxes with a slit in the lid to place your ticket and secured by a lock and key. The simplicity of this design also led to cheating at the polls. Crooked politicians could hide counterfeit or extra ballots for a particular candidate in a concealed false bottom of special stuffer’s boxes without tampering with the lock on the ballot box.[5] A later version of the ballot box was the Acme Voting Machine invented around 1880. The crank on the side would drop the ballot down into the box and tally the number of ballots that should be in the box.[6]

Then in 1898 Alfred J. Gillespie patented a design by Jacob Myers called the gear and lever automatic voting machine. The machine had a lever that when pulled drew a privacy curtain around the voter while simultaneously activating the device. The machine’s panel of smaller choice levers could adapt to different numbers of candidates and issues with the ability to shut off different numbers of levers. The ability to use varying numbers of levers cut down on invalid voting when there weren’t many choices. Then after making the desired choices the voter would lift the main lever submitting their vote and opening the privacy curtain. By the 1920’s and after a feature and cover spot in Popular Science Monthly many states adopted the automatic voting machine as the official method of voting. The machine was so popular and widespread that large numbers of them were still in use by the turn of the 21st century.[7]

Today the emergence of new technologies is making voting more secure, accurate, and tamper proof. In Austin, Texas a county clerk had a problem when it came time to replace the out of date voting machines she had at her disposal. So she outlined some requirements for what she would want in a new voting system and a computer scientist answered her call. Using a technology called cryptography, the same technology that lets you make an online purchase with a credit card, he was able to make a safer method of voting. The new system they named S.T.A.R. (Secure, Transparent, Auditable and Reliable) and worked in stages: the voter would sign in and receive a token. The token would be scanned and swapped for a authentication slip which allowed the voter to select the desired candidates on a computer screen and print out their selections. The voter then looks over his/her selections and brings it to a high tech ballot box which scans and records the results. Then anyone can log into a website and see the up-to-date polling on how the election is going This new method brings together new computer technologies as well as the old fashion paper trail to help make a more fraud-free method.[8]

While compiling this quick run through of roughly 200 plus years of voting history I ran into some difficulty finding good information on some of the different aspects. Reliable articles that detailed out milestones like party tickets and the automatic voting machine were few and far between and those that did mention them did so in passing. For such an integral part of what makes our country run, I found this surprising. As new ways of voting are implemented we must not forget the obsolete methods that were built upon.

The S.T.A.R. voting system is only one example of the potential future of voting, a glimpse into what people have been striving for since the first elections began. Betterment. Like the improvement of the Acme box over the traditional ballot box, the timeline of casting your vote is always moving forward. Being able to have your voice heard is a privilege, and one that has not come easy for many. Knowing where we came from better lets us appreciate where we are now and where we may be headed.


[1] Keyssar, Alexander. The Right To Vote. (New York: Basic Books, 2009)
[2] United States Constitution
[3] Alexander Keyssar, The Right To Vote.
[4] Richard Bensel. American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century : Law, Identity and the Polling Place. (Cambridge, 2004.)
[5] “Vote: The Machinery of Democracy.” Vote: The Machinery of Democracy. January 1, 2004. Accessed October 30, 2014.
[6] “Political Machines: Innovations That Changed The Way We Vote.” Forbes. November 5, 2012. Accessed October 30, 2014.
[7] “Vote: The Machinery of Democracy.” Vote: The Machinery of Democracy.
[8] Julie Rehmeyer. “Lock the Vote.” Discover Vol. 35, no. 6 (2014): 10-11.

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