by Heather Lang

The right to vote is one of our most important privileges as American citizens. On Election Day, we mark our choices on a ballot—typically a card or sheet of paper. A ballot was not always a piece of paper. “Ballot” comes from the word “ballotta” which in Italian means, little ball. In early America a ballot could have been just that: a small ball or an object shaped like a ball, such as a pea or a shell or even a bullet. In Pennsylvania people voted by dropping beans in a hat.

In many states people also voted viva voce—by voice. “All in favor, say ‘aye’!” Or perhaps the voter would approach the voting table and state his choice to the election judge.

These seemed like practical ways to vote at a time when many voters were illiterate. Some states used paper ballots, but it was BYOB: bring your own ballot! Voters could write down their vote on a piece of paper, but if they misspelled the name it might not count. Some voters cut their ballots out of the newspaper or got them at the polls where politicians handed out party tickets. These ballots were often big and colorful making it clear whom the voter supported. The voter either handed the ballot to an election clerk or placed it in a container, such as a ballot box or a tin canister. Some were locked; some were left unguarded.

The Constitution left it up to each state to decide what voting mechanism it would use, but until the late nineteenth century almost all states had one thing in common: voting was a public act. Many people thought the idea of voting privately, like we do today, was disgraceful and cowardly.

This early voting system was wrought with fraud and abuse. Politicians, thugs, and partisans intimidated voters at the polls. Tenant farmers opted to stay home rather than face their landlords while casting their votes. It was legal for politicians to bribe voters by handing out their party ticket with a coin. Ballots were stolen. Voters were mugged. Ballot boxes were stuffed or designed with hidden compartments so votes could be added without unlocking them. Not surprisingly there were sometimes more votes than voters.

As our country evolved, so did our voting system. In the nineteenth century our population exploded from about 4 million in 1790 to about 76 million in 1900. Initially voting was restricted to white men with property, but during the nineteenth century suffrage began to expand, further increasing the number of voters. Voting by tossing beans in a hat was no longer practical.

In 1888 Massachusetts was the first state to adopt the Australian ballot. This system required the government to provide uniform paper ballots that listed all individuals running for office. It also called for voting to be done in secret. New security procedures increased the safety of ballot boxes. Many states followed this model since it reduced fraud, violence, and intimidation, and it effectively addressed the increasing size of the electorate. Still, it was not a perfect system. Election judges disagreed about how to read a marked ballot, and it was not a good solution for illiterate voters. In some states the black vote decreased.

Along with a new voting system came new voting equipment. In 1892 the mechanical-lever machine promised to eliminate the paper ballot. This machine produced immediate election results and eliminated the problems with human bias in reading and counting ballots. However, there were no paper ballots to fall back on in case of mechanical failure or tampering.

The punch-card voting machine made its debut in 1964. The paper ballots are pre-scored. When the voter punches in his or her choice, a little piece of paper called a chad is punched through, making a hole in the ballot. But what if the punch isn’t clean, leaving a dimple or a dangling chad? The machine will not count the vote. This problem put into question the results of the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

There are several other types of voting machines commonly used today that store votes electronically. Direct recording electronic voting machines are paperless with touch screens or push buttons. A computer memory device records votes. Computer scientists and security experts argue that these electronic machines have many security risks. For example, a hijacker could easily use a Radio Frequency remote control device to intercept and change votes.

How about internet voting? We can pay bills and taxes online, wouldn’t it be convenient to vote from the comfort of our own homes? In 2011 disabled residents in Oregon cast their ballots using IPads. While internet voting could definitely increase voter turnout, hacking and security risks are significant. The D.C. Elections Board planned to use online voting in 2010 and tested the system by challenging anyone to hack it. Within 36 hours, a University of Michigan professor and some of his graduate students had gained complete control of the election server and could change votes at will.

As our country grows and evolves, we must continue to assess our voting technology. Whether pea, paper, or IPad, the form of the ballot is critical to the integrity of our right to vote and our democratic process.

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Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • Would you vote differently if you were voting privately instead of voting in front of your parent, teacher, class, or friends? Why or why not?
  • Think of some times recently when you have had to cast a vote. What method did you use (e.g. viva voce, paper ballot), and was the vote public or private? Do you think that was the best method? Why or why not?
  • What do you think is the most secure voting system? Why?

Activities for Young People at Home and in the Classroom

  • Hold a mock election. It could be for a real person and position or for an imaginary position using television characters or other famous people. What is the most appropriate type of ballot and voting equipment for the election (viva voce, ball, paper ballot, electronic vote)? Are there any rules or can individuals use bribery and intimidation to persuade voters to vote for their favorite candidate? Should it be public or private? Design your own ballot and hold your election.
  • Divide the classroom up into two groups. Each will hold an election for either a real or imaginary position. One group will follow modern day voting procedures (private voting). The other group can set up their election based on the loose procedures and public voting system used in early America. The entire class will participate in each election. What were the similarities and differences?

Reference Sources


Fund, John H. Stealing Elections: how voter fraud threatens our democracy. New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2008.

Saltman, Roy G. The History and Politics of Voting Technology: In Quest of Integrity and Public Confidence. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Online Resources

Lepore, Jill. “Rock, Paper, Scissors: How we used to vote.” The New Yorker, 13 October 2008.

“America’s Voting Patchwork.” Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2004.

Halderman, J. Alex. “Hacking the D.C. Internet Voting Pilot.”

©2016 by Heather Lang; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance