Every Vote Counts and Counting

First there was the “hanging chad,” then we had thousands of voters getting removed from the rolls due to technical glitches and other human errors, then the so-called three million invalid votes in the last general election that turned out to be only nineteen, and now we have the Iowa Caucus “App-gate”!

Counting every precious vote accurately in a Democratic society has been a challenge that goes as far back to ancient times.

Since The Tenth Sphere covers the latest trends happening in Digital Tech & Industry (among many other trendy topics), I thought it would be interesting to give my readers a brief history and discussion of voting machines, voting apps, and voting tech in general.

Roman Paper Ballots/Writing Tablets — Can't hack into these!
Roman Paper Ballots/Writing Tablets

Let’s begin with the earliest of voting machines, paper ballots, which existed as far back as the Roman Empire, ca. 139 BCE. The first use of paper ballots in the United States was in 1629, and was used in selecting a pastor for the Salem Church during the founding days of the Salem Massachusetts community.

Fast forward to 1838 England. The Chartists (a working-class suffrage movement) demanded responsible election reforms. And in so doing, Benjamin Jolly of Bath invented arguably the very first voting machine.

It worked like this: each voter was to cast his vote by dropping a brass ball into the appropriate hole in the top of the machine by the candidate’s name. Each voter could only vote once because they were given just one brass ball. The ball advanced a clockwork counter for the corresponding candidate as it passed through the machine. And then the ball fell out the front where it could be given to the next voter.

Then came Henry Spratt (a British national) who in 1875 received the first US patent for a voting machine. It presented to the voter an array of push-button ballots.

Next came American inventor Anthony Beranek of Chicago in 1881. His voting machine was specifically designed to meet the requirements of the United States general election cycle. It was another push-button style voting machine but with a twist: Interlocks behind each row prevented voting for more than one candidate per race, and an interlock with the door of the voting booth reset the machine for the next voter as each voter left the booth.

However, it wasn’t until July 1936 that the venerated American bastion of technological innovation, IBM, would see the first real modern-style voting machine. In true computer technology nostalgia, the IBM voting device used a punched card system along with a series of dials to allow voters to cast their votes in a single transferrable vote (STV) system. The main advantage of this was that up to 400 votes per minute could be tabulated.

The Votomatic, ca. 1960s. — No more hanging chads!
The Votomatic, ca. 1960s

From there voting technology wouldn’t see much improvement until the 1960s. Though punched card systems had been around as early as the 1890s (with a system developed by John McTammany that was widely used in the US), the real voting machine powerhouse came in the form of the Votomatic, developed by Joseph P. Harris based on the aforementioned IBM system of the 1930s.

The Votomatic system was very successful. By the 1996 Presidential election, some variation of the punched card system was used by 37.3% of registered voters in the United States.

However, when the 2000 US presidential election came around, the Votomatic-style voting machine took on a new (and arguably infamous) reputation: “the hanging chads!” Essentially, the unreliable mechanics of the system allowed for inconclusive voting results as the ballots (with their ostensible punched out bits of paper called chads) could not be successfully interpreted. The result was that a few key Florida counties were given to George W. Bush over Al Gore. Which then in turn, triggered the Electoral College to give the 25 electors of the entire state of Florida over to Mr. Bush, putting him over the 270 electoral votes needed to win presidency despite Mr. Gore getting the most popular votes.

Oh, it should be noted that an alternative to the Votomatic were the lever-style voting machines, using a direct recording voting system (i.e. a mechanical system) to tabulate votes. They were developed around the turn of the last century by Jacob P. Myers and the Standard Voting Machine Company was formed shortly thereafter. These machines were primarily used in a major metropolitan areas such as New York City. By the fall of 2000, New York was the last state to stop using the lever voting machines—by court order.

So now we come to more recent history and the electronic voting machine.

Heaven forbid!

The Direct-Recording Electronic Voting Machines (DRE) utilize a combination of an electronic screen with mechanical or optical components to record votes in a digital database along side a paper-based tabulation system. And newer generations of these DREs transmit the vote count data over The Internet! Now if the idea of a digital-data driven system with removable memory (or cloud-based data transmission) for counting votes makes you nervous—can we say “hacking votes”—you wouldn’t be the first person to feel that way. Companies such as DieboldAdvanced Voting Solutions, and many others tout the security and reliability of these systems for use in our most venerated institution: Democracy. And in elections all over the world.

Diebold Voting Machine — Just asking to be hacked!
Diebold Voting Machine

Numerous studies have been done to illustrate that these systems are not as secure as the good old fashioned paper-based systems of the past.

Anyway, with a voting massive population coupled with instant 24/7/365 news and data access, the demand for early, accurate, and secure voting results puts enormous pressure on these companies and election commissions to find digital solutions to these challenges.

And that leads us to the Iowa Caucus vote counting App-gate. The fickle app was developed by a company called, Shadow, Inc. [Take that brand name for what you will.]

Shadow is not the first developer to create a voting app. Just Google voting apps and you will find dozens of developers and companies marketing their versions of voting apps.

And they’re not all for political elections either. From Survey MonkeyPoll AnywhereWishboneFacebook, and even our own PTC Microsoft-powered SharePoint Teams and Comm Sites. Digital electronic voting has never been more popular!

You can vote on anything from fashion, cars, music, movies, clothes, professors & classes (in a collegiate environment), to just about anything on social media. And you can use just about any social media platform like Twitter and Facebook to conduct the polls/voting through these third-party apps!

Wishbone Voting App — Please use this app for the next caucus!
Wishbone Voting App

It’s like the Wild West of voting apps that have changed our political, social, and cultural landscapes forever—along with all your personal data flying around like a plastic bag in a tornado. Can we say Cambridge Analytica?

Thankfully, the Nevada Caucus had decided not to use the Shadow voting app. They went with a different one instead!