Boomers Remember Voting Machines

As of this writing, 90 million people have already voted in this year’s presidential election, Mister Boomer being one of them. His state has early voting, so he was able to take advantage of that to avoid too long a line. Despite our pandemic circumstances and long waits across the country, what struck Mister Boomer in the process was how he waxed nostalgic for the old manual voting machines.

Every boomer will remember the mechanical voting machine: a behemoth of metal wrapped in a curtain. Walking into this “voting booth,” the voter grabbed a large handle on a lever in the lower middle of the metal wall that housed the paper ballot, and muscled it to the right. This action closed the curtain for privacy and allowed the voter to peruse the list of candidates and other amendments and propositions that would be present for the particular election. The voter grasped small, individual levers located by each candidate and items, and clicked them down to choose. However, clicking the lever did not cast a vote. One of the beauties of this mechanical device was that if the voter made a mistake or decided to change the selection, a mere flip back up of the lever cancelled the selection. When the voter finished going through the ballot and was satisfied with the choices, grabbing the big lever that closed the curtain on entering and pulling it back to the left both opened the curtain and simultaneously recorded the votes, resetting the machine for the next voter. It was an entirely manual lever and gear process, with no electricity or other power source needed.

To boomers, it may seem like this mechanical method was the way people had always voted. However, the history of voting methods in our country is a fascinating one that had significant ramifications for the Boomer Generation. The voting machine that more than likely was the method used by boomers to cast their first votes was not ubiquitous until the 1930s.

It was known as the Myers Automatic Voting Booth, named after its inventor, Jacob H. Myers, of Rochester, New York. Mr. Myers patented his invention in 1889, and slowly built up a following from state to state between 1910 and 1930, when use of the machine dominated voting procedures. It is estimated that more than half of the votes cast in the 1960 Presidential Election between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon were done so on a Myers machine.

It’s hard to believe that the original voting method in the early days of our country was by an oral decree. A paper ballot system was developed in Australia and first employed there in 1856. It was hailed as way to allow a secret ballot by each voter. In 1888, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to adopt the Australian paper ballot system. New York State followed a year later, and the concept spread to the other states. This was the preferred method employed across the country until Jacob Myers introduced his engineering marvel.

As the Boomer Generation was winding down in 1962, the first optical scanner appeared. Some cities in Oregon, California and North Carolina used this two-part method of taking hand-marked ballots and scanning them with an optical reader to record and create a database. A punch card system first appeared in some cities in Georgia in 1964, challenging the decades of dominance by the Myers Automatic Voting Booth.

The Boomer Generation began in 1946. During the early boomer years, the national age requirement for voting was 21, so the first boomer votes were cast in 1967. That means the first Presidential election that boomers voted in was 1968, that tumultuous contest between former Vice President Richard M. Nixon and incumbent Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. The voting methods most states used then was the Myers Automatic Voting Booth, followed by paper ballots. A great many boomers will recall after each election, the folded up Myers machines being stored in the back of school gymnasiums, libraries and city halls.

The first Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machine appeared in 1974. This method allowed the voter to make a choice on a video screen via a terminal. The first recorded use of the device was in Illinois in 1975. The method is not currently in wide use.

The Myers system began being phased out in earnest during the 1980s. Few, if any, jurisdictions will still use the machine in this year’s election. As we can clearly see, voting method was a state-controlled procedure, and now, like then, states don’t necessarily agree with each other. Consequently, there may be more methods for voting this year than ever before. Variations on paper ballots, punch systems and optical scanners rule the day.

Boomers may recall that, after ratification by the states, President Nixon signed and certified the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1970, setting the voting age on a national level at age 18. That gave many mid-generation boomers the opportunity to vote earlier than the previous age of 21. Mister Boomer recalls his early voting days behind the curtain of the Myers Automatic Voting Booth. Since casting a vote was a physical process, Mr. B associates it with his voting experience. His last use of the machine was in the 1990s.

By contrast, his state uses an optical method now where, once the ballot is filled out, is fed into a scanner device to record. As far as Mister B is concerned, the experience sends him back to the days of taking the SATs for college. That was the first time he was given a sheet and asked to fill in the ovals for his answers, making sure he stayed within the lines, yet filled in the oval completely. The stand-up desk with the “privacy sides” attached, used to fill out the ballot, didn’t help dispel that impression.

Certainly every voting method used since the origins of voting have been criticized as flawed, subject to abuse and misuse, and prone to human error. Mister Boomer is not concerned with those trajectories in his little world of nostalgia. Rather, he wonders whether an updated Myers machine might be just the ticket to restore civic pride so voters can proudly procure the “I voted” sticker on the way out, feeling they have, indeed, had a voting experience.

How about you, boomers? When was your first encounter with a Myers Automatic Voting Booth?

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