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?

Boomers Witnessed the Evolution of Weather Forecasting

As long as people have been aware of their surroundings, there was a need for some form of weather forecasting. In ancient times, attempts were made to predict weather by observing the sky, astrology, observing plant and animal behavior under changing conditions, and then, as they were were invented, with measuring instruments (such as the barometer in the 1600s). Sayings such as, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” have been circulating for more than two thousand years. Variations existed for shepherds and farmers.

Humans stumbled along with day-to-day weather as best they could until, in 1904, a Norwegian mathematician named Vilhelm Bjerknes surmised that weather might be predicted by using mathematical equations. British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson took the concept to heart and quickly came to the conclusion that a huge number of calculations — taking all the variables into account (wind speed and direction, temperature, pressure, to name a few) — would need to be made for even a small weather prediction to be possible, let alone in a timely manner. It took until the 1940s for a team of meteorologists and mathematicians at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, to employ early computers to work the tens of thousands of calculations needed in weather forecasting.

But, hey, Mister Boomer, what does this have to do with the Boomer Generation? Fast forward to a time young boomers were hearing stories about World War II. The onset of our generation appearing immediately after the War meant movies, books and family remembrances were readily available for interested boomers. A story often told in various cultural forms was about Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. One of the amazing facts of that historical battle on June 6, 1945, is that the order to go or no rested in the hands of a team of British and American weather forecasters. The need for accurate weather forecasting became crucial to the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Despite far from ideal weather conditions for days on end, General Dwight D. Eisenhower took the team’s advice that a lull in the rain, wind, fog and rough seas would occur within a three-day window beginning on June 5. In his report on the operation, Eisenhower wrote, “I thank the Gods of War we went when we did.”

After the War, the advances made in forecasting for battles, in combination with a more developed radar system, ushered in a new era of weather forecasting. By 1950, the team of scientists at IAS in Princeton, New Jersey, led by Jules Carney, successfully predicted a series of forecasts in North America, ten years after first applying computers to the challenge. By the mid-50s, the U.S. Weather Bureau was issuing regular forecasts across the country. Boomers were the first generation to benefit from this forecasting, and TV helped get the word out.

In 1960, the U.S. launched the first weather satellite (TIROS) to monitor the Earth’s cloud cover. It was operational for a mere 78 days, but the Genie was out of the bottle — that more data from both terrestrial and space sources were going to assist in future forecasting.

Nowadays, with weather forecasting available on your phone, right down to an hour-by-hour prediction for your Zip Code, it’s difficult for us to remember that this type of forecasting — and its increasing accuracy (though we still complain) — was non-existent before the boomer years.

One last example will illustrate how boomers had a front-row seat to the evolution of weather forecasting, and that involves tornados. There was not a clear understanding of what conditions caused tornados, nor was there enough data gathered before the boomer years. The result was that predictions of tornados were generally not attempted. A little known fact is that from 1887 until 1950, the Weather Bureau forbade or highly discouraged the use of the word “tornado” to avoid a public panic from these fearsome and deadly storm events.

In March of 1948, a tornado devastated the Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma. The base commander, looking to avoid another disaster, ordered two meteorologists, Captain Robert Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush, to work on the prediction problem. The two developed a system and successfully predicted several tornado outbreaks in 1948. At that time, predicting tornados was considered career suicide for weather forecasters. Captain Miller later wrote, “I wondered how I could manage as a civilian, perhaps as an elevator operator.” In 1950, the Weather Bureau dropped their opposition to mentioning the word, just in time for boomers to watch weather forecasts on television.

Despite the unpredictability of storms like the tornados, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and numerous weather disasters that have befallen our country in the past few months alone, the death toll for these events is dramatically lower than what would have been just a few decades ago.

Do you remember watching the weather forecasts on TV, boomers? Did you ever base what you wore to school on the weather forecast you saw on TV?