Will new technology reduce voting problems or increase them?
New york is a city of contrasts, not least in technology. Grade-school students carry the latest hand-held gadgets, and hedge-fund traders manipulate world markets from a table at Starbucks. Yet on sweltering summer days a very common question, often answered in the negative, is: “Do you have air conditioning?” As recently as the late 1980s, sinks with garbage disposals were banned in most of the city; large swaths of Queens had no cable television; and New York State driver’s licenses had no photographs.
Voting machines are another area where New York State lags behind. People from the rest of the country are often incredulous to learn that New Yorkers still use the old-fashioned lever-operated models, which do not differ greatly from the first successful voting machines, introduced in Lockport, New York, in 1892. In return, New Yorkers, after seeing the mischief that has occurred with other types of voting technology, wonder what exactly is supposed to be wrong with the sturdy lever machines. A session at the recent annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology—held in Las Vegas, where everything is up-to-date except the elevator music—addressed the history behind voting machines, lever and otherwise, with some potential lessons for today.
The opening speaker, Roy G. Saltman, author of The History and Politics of Voting Integrity (Palgrave, 2006), discussed how voting machinery developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and pointed out some flaws with lever machines, which were the first successful type. For example, they are fairly easy to tamper with, the upper rows can be too high for short people to reach, and crowded ballots often result in questions and propositions being shunted to a corner and overlooked. And they have more subtle flaws. On lever machines, casting a vote trips the rotary mechanical counter that keeps a running tally. If the counter is at 099, the next vote will have to turn three separate wheels to advance it to 100, and some voters simply don’t have the strength for that. Saltman said one election official has told him that he sees many more vote totals ending in 99 than would be expected statistically.
Yet the main purported problem with lever machines is that they do not create a “paper trail”—a marked ballot for each individual vote that can be used to check the total. As Bryan Pfaffenberger, of the University of Virginia, explained, similar concerns were responsible for New York City’s delay in adopting voting machines long after their use was required by state law. Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic machine, resisted the uniform ballot design, which they felt removed autonomy from local political bosses. They also feared that the voting machines could be rigged. When the machines were finally adopted, in 1926, the shortfall in Democratic votes was much less than had been feared, and Tammany accepted the innovation.
Today, of course, lever machines are an only–in– New York antiquity. Pfaffenberger, perhaps noticing the local popularity of slot machines, speculated that their continuing popularity may lie in the physical satisfaction of pulling a handle to register one’s vote.
All of this raises another question: Is a paper trail necessarily good? As the third and final speaker, Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer scientist, pointed out, for most of the nineteenth century, paper ballots were considered the foundation of the era’s pervasive political corruption, and voting machines were seen as a technological vaccine that would save democracy.
In the attempt to reduce vote-counting mischief, the reformers largely succeeded. But as a result, “the focus of those intent on election fraud shifted from the ballot box and voting booth to voter registration, literacy tests and similar mechanisms.” The paper is available at Jones’s Web site , along with many other resources on voting technology of the past, present, and future.
Perhaps the day of the mechanical voting machine is over; perhaps mandating a paper trail will be more than just a case of two wrongs intended to make a right; perhaps we’ll be spared any close elections until all the kinks are worked out. But as the scholars in Las Vegas showed, new voting technologies often turn out to have problems of their own, and as is true with computerized slot machines, an electronic device can be just as big a gamble as a mechanical one.
—Frederic D. Schwarz
Winning Wars With Wires-and Without
Elsewhere in this issue we mention that the cell-phone revolution had its roots in military technology. Ever since 490 b.c., when Pheidippides ran 26 miles, 385 yards (give or take a step or two) to tell Athenians of their hometown team’s victory over the Persians in the battle of Marathon, swift transmission of information has been a key element of warfare. A pair of recent books show how superiority in communications played a key role in deciding the two greatest wars in our nation’s history.
In Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (Collins, 227 pages, $24.95), Tom Wheeler examines the nearly 1,000 surviving telegrams sent by President Lincoln, plus some that he wrote out for transmission but decided not to send and ones received by him. Wheeler shows how Lincoln took advantage of the still-developing technology to give orders when regular mail would have been too slow and to react to developments within hours. During the Second Battle of Bull Run, for example, the President peppered Col. Herman Haupt with messages like, “What became of our forces which held the bridge till twenty minutes ago, as you say?”
The Confederacy had no such capacity for delivering up-to-the-minute news. During the war the Union, already crisscrossed by telegraph wires, built more than 15,000 miles of new lines, while the Confederacy built a mere 500 miles. Using this communication advantage, Lincoln could coordinate the movements of armies separated by hundreds of miles, cajole recalcitrant generals, and collect and forward the latest tactical and strategic information.
The author occasionally makes too much of the obvious parallels with today’s information age, and he can be too eager to apply modern business jargon (“early adopter,” “Management by Walking Around”) to Lincoln’s executive style. Still, the book provides a good, concise military history of the Civil War told from a thoroughly novel point of view.
Eight decades later, during World War II, the importance of telecommunications was taken for granted; the problem was giving the troops enough equipment. In Crystal Clear: The Struggle for Reliable Communications Technology in World War II (IEEE Press/Wiley-Interscience, 230 pages, $54.95), Richard J. Thompson, Jr., concentrates on one aspect of this problem: the effort to procure, manufacture, and distribute crystals for radio sets.
Before the war, radio crystals had been essentially a handicraft industry, with each manufacturer using its own equipment, often improvised, and guarding its trade secrets. Within two years after Pearl Harbor, the government had managed to greatly increase the procurement of raw quartz (mostly from Brazil, where peasants mined the rock with picks and shovels) and had made enormous strides in yield and quality control. By 1944 the supply was great enough to allow a wholesale change of crystals just before D-Day, foiling the Germans, who had learned to monitor the old frequencies.
One problem the armed forces encountered with their crystals was aging. In the summer and fall of 1943 headquarters started getting reports of crystals losing their ability to oscillate at the proper frequency. As a stopgap measure, the services established in-theater regrinding and polishing teams that rehabilitated worn-out crystals, often with improvised tools such as toothbrushes and grinding paste borrowed from the motor pools. Meanwhile, stateside scientists determined that the aging problem was caused by inadequately prepared surfaces. By replacing abrasives with deep chemical etching in the production process, manufacturers created smooth surfaces free from most of the defects that caused deterioration.
As had been true with Civil War telegraphy, the opposition in World War II used inferior technology, making their communications less helpful. And across the decades the result for the United States was the same: more efficient allocation of troops and resources, better strategic and tactical information, and a swifter end to a bloody conflict.
—Frederic D. Schwarz