Tech Time Warp: The changing role of technology in the U.S. elections

Posted by Lauren Beliveau on Oct 21, 2016 1:07:31 PM

vote-flag.jpgNow that the final Presidential debate wrapped up this week, everyone is eagerly counting down to Election Day. All of this election talk got us thinking about voting technology, so this Tech Time Warp dives into the advances that have been made over the years. From 1888 when Massachusetts adopted Australia’s secret ballot method to electronic votes, technology plays an important role in the electoral process.

Voting tech starts off slow

Here in the United States we take the idea of keeping votes private for granted, but the practice didn’t started until 1888 when Massachusetts adopted Australia’s secret ballot. While you might assume that paper ballots may have been phased out drastically since 1888, 4 percent of ballots in the 2012 election were still paper ballots counted by hand!

The first voting machine was invented in 1892, and it used levers that tallied the votes. The goal was to reduce the likelihood of a miscount and to speed up the results. Things didn’t change much after that until 1965 when the Votomatic punch card system was developed. After the Votomatic device punched a hole to record a vote, the card was then fed into a computer where the vote was tallied. This was based on IBM’s Port-A-Punch technology, which enabled quick and easy documentation of inventories, surveys, and job tickets. Although new voting technology followed, card-punch style voting machines created a controversy in Florida during the 2000 presidential election between running mates George W. Bush, and Al Gore. (Who could forget all of that discussion about hanging chads?)

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In 1970, optical scanners were introduced to the voting process to read and tally paper ballots. But perhaps the most interesting advancement in the technology of voting happened in the early ’90s. Electronic voting arrived in 1991, recording votes through an electronic interface.

But it was really the 1992 Presidential election that took the Internet to a whole new level. There was even a way to track candidates and their political stances using an online service called Prodigy. Emails gave campaigns a whole new life, too, with MIT creating emailing lists that delivered more than 2,000 political emails days before the election took place. The Internet still hadn’t hit its “boom” at that point, but that election paved the way for our candidates today, who use political websites, social media, and more, as an important part of their campaigns.

Today’s voting technology pose concerns

It seems that updates to voting machines have certainly been delayed over time. After the 2000 election, the federal government handed out three billion dollars to update voting technology. But many of the voting machines used today still outdated, and they pose other problems as well—like security and usability.

 This election, 43 states will use machines that are at least 10 years old. This poses problems as the glue in some touch-screen models is old and can potentially cause vote flipping. Plus, most machines are only compatible with Windows 2000 or Windows XP, both of which reached their end of support in 2014, which creates security vulnerabilities. As we get closer to Nov. 8, we are left to wonder whether these advances in voting technology are helping or hurting our election process.

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Topics: Tech Time Warp

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