How crisis shaped voting tech the US, and how COVID is doing the same

US elections were first held with voice votes and party tickets. Huge population growth -- and emergencies -- have prompted new ways to vote.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce | Amazon | Earned wage access | Online marketplaces | Direct to consumer | Unions | Labor and employment | Supply chain | Cybersecurity | Privacy | Stalkerware | Hacking Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
7 min read

A voter operates a gear-and-lever voting booth around 1905. The devices laid the foundation for electronic voting machines in use today.

Getty Images

Soldiers in the Civil War used the latest advancements in military technology. The repeating rifle and improved bullets made it possible to launch deadlier attacks from farther away than before. Early submarines tested the waters of undersea warfare. The telegraph allowed President Abraham Lincoln to get important messages from officers in the field. 

The advances weren't limited to battle. The 1864 presidential contest was the first general election held by any nation during a major conflict. In order to vote, Union soldiers relied on two of the most significant developments in American voting: paper ballots and absentee voting. At polling stations in military camps, soldiers from more than a dozen states cast pre-printed tickets that listed candidates from one party or another. Voters could paste in the names of different candidates if they didn't want to vote a straight party ticket.

Both innovations allowed thousands of soldiers to vote in an election that helped decide the fate of the country. Soldiers from states that counted their votes separately voted for President Abraham Lincoln over his rival George McClellan by more than 75%, and solidified Republican control of the US Senate. 


The Union presidential ticket for the voters in the state of Ohio. Voters cast the pre-printed tickets of one party or another as ballots.

Smithsonian Institution

Paper ballots, already gaining traction in the decades before the war, soon became the norm. And while the Civil War absentee voting effort was a one-off, 80 years later World War II helped the idea become a mainstay. Wartime presidents often found they needed to let soldiers vote to prove they had a consensus on the war, said Alex Keyssar, a historian at Harvard University.

"If you want people to go into the military and fight for the country, it's ideologically a good idea to give them a say," Keyssar said. 

The US may seem like it's facing an unprecedented voting crisis at the moment. The coronavirus pandemic has made it risky to gather at polling places, prompting many election agencies to make voting by mail easier. The convenience that it provides voters, however, creates a huge logistical burden for local precincts and counties. Ballots have to be sent to more voters. Each returned ballot requires special layers of verification before it can be counted. All of that comes as the US Postal Service faces underfunding and reported slowdowns in delivery

But as Civil War era voting innovations show, the US has a history of trying new ways to let its citizens express their voices, particularly during times of change and emergency. Population growth, expanded voting rights, political scandal and wars have all prompted changes to how we vote, including electronic ballots and computerized vote counting. 

A brief history of voting in the US

Before party tickets, early Americans used more rudimentary methods to exercise their democratic rights. Voting by voice was the norm in many places, including Kentucky, where it was used into the 1890s. The idea of voting secretly wasn't accepted. 

The party ticket was meant to make it easier to cast ballots, as well as tally votes. The tickets bore bright colors to distinguish the parties, helping each voter select the right one whether or not he could read. (Women weren't universally allowed to vote in the US until the following century.) 


The colors could get voters in trouble; supporters of one party were known to rough up and even shoot voters carrying the ballot of another. Voters also heard partisan speeches at the polling place -- a practice outlawed today -- and encountered drunken revelers because Election Day was a holiday.

After the Civil War, Americans embraced the concept of a secret ballot printed by the government, a concept known as the "Australian ballot" because that's where the idea originated. The secret ballot was part of a larger push to keep party influence out of polling places. 

Casting votes with machines

The first voting machines were developed in the late 1800s. Key improvements included faster vote-counting and additional privacy for the voter. 

The machines worked with gears and levers. A voter entered the booth and closed a privacy curtain, unlocking the machine. The voter made selections by pulling a lever next to a candidate's name. Finally, the voter opened the privacy curtain, causing the levers to reset and the votes for each candidate to be recorded on odometer-like dials in the back. 

At the end of the election, officials would count the tallies for each candidate from the dials in the back. There was no way to audit the votes because a voter's "ballot" wasn't separately recorded. The only data was the total number of votes for each candidate.

The machines came to stand 5 to 6 feet tall as elections grew to include more candidates, as well as ballot proposals. Polling places barred voters from bringing people with them, and allowed observers from each party to watch as a way to prevent tampering and fraud.

Early computers and voting

Two innovations in the mid-20th century helped lead to the electronic voting systems we have today. Optical scanning debuted at polls in the 1960s, and by the early 2000s, it was a top method for counting votes.

The second innovation was data processing on mainframe computers, which led to the adoption of punch card ballots. Introduced in 1964, a device called the Votomatic used the first punch card ballots, which were the same size as the standard IBM punch card used for data processing. 


An early Votomatic punch card ballot.

Smithsonian Institution

Votomatic marked the first time that precincts could tally votes quickly and efficiently with computers, said R. Michael Alvarez, a political science professor at the California Institute of Technology. The systems were also much smaller and more manageable than the giant gear-and-lever machines of the past, so they appealed to counties with long ballots and lots of voters, like Los Angeles County in California and Harris County in Texas. 

However, punch card ballots came with a flaw. It was sometimes hard to tell how a voter meant to vote. 

"They were just thinking about speed and efficiency and reduction of costs," Alvarez said, "and not thinking about accuracy and voters making mistakes." 

Switching to touch-screen voting

The problem came to a head in the 2000 US presidential election. In the tight race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, many Floridians failed to fully punch the hole next to the candidate of their choice. In many cases this left a piece of the ballot, or "chad," hanging off the punch card. Voters in one populous Florida county were also faced with confusing punch cards called butterfly ballots. As a result, Florida officials performing a hand recount couldn't tell how some voters meant to mark their ballots.


The infamous butterfly ballot, on a punch card device, from the 2000 US presidential election.

Smithsonian Institution

In the aftermath, the federal government rushed to fund updated voting technology with the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA. Many states used the money to buy direct recording electronic machines, often called DREs, which ran with software and touch screens.

In development since the 1980s, the earliest DREs displayed the entire ballot on one screen and were as big as the mechanical gear-and-lever voting booths. Later models let users read through their ballot on a smaller screen and mark their selections. In a distinction that came to be crucial, some of the machines created a paper printout of the marked ballot for the voter to check, and others didn't.

Keeping hackers out of voting machines

By 2004, computer programmers and political scientists were raising alarms about DREs, especially those without paper trails. Their software could be easily manipulated, as Andrew Appel, a Princeton computer scientist, warned in congressional testimony. Lacking printouts for audits, officials might not catch attempts to hack machines and change votes.


The Shouptronic electronic voting machine (left) debuted in the 1980s, and mimicked the Standard gear-and-lever voting machine of the early 1900s.

Smithsonian Institution

However, election agencies had already spent their HAVA money, and many lacked funds to update their systems routinely. It took more than a decade of advocacy, and the prospect of a foreign power trying to manipulate US elections in 2016, for most states to shift completely away from paperless voting machines

Still, paperless machines remain in use today in all of Louisiana, as well as in some counties in states like Texas, Mississippi and New Jersey.

Absentee voting assisted by optical scanners

By the end of World War II, civilians in many states were allowed to apply for absentee ballots, and some states now offer absentee ballots to any voter. During the coronavirus pandemic, unprecedented numbers of voters will have a very good reason to stay away from polling places.

Optical scanning makes the process of counting absentee ballots easier. But the ballots tend to be thrown out at higher rates than those handed in at precincts, where voters can often run their ballots through a scanner to check for errors. This catches problems like voting for too many candidates in one contest, or marking a bubble that should be filled in completely with a check mark. 

With so many people voting by mail this year, it'll be more important than ever for voters to mark their ballots correctly, and follow requirements to sign ballots and return them in the correct envelope.

"How many voters are going to make simple mistakes on their ballots?" Alvarez said. "I think that's going to become a very big issue again, just like in 2000."

Watch this: What political campaigns know about you