Time Travel Iowa: 1906 Voting Machine

In the late 1800s, mechanical voting devices were being introduced in U.S. elections. This 1906 model was one of the first to be used in Iowa.

  • Artifact: 1906 Voting Machine, Automatic Voting Machine Company
  • Date: 1906
  • Museum Location: State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, IA

Press and drag the image below to view 360º details of the exterior of the voting machine.

 

 

Press and drag the image below to view 360º details of the interior of the voting machine.

 

Transcript

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of a democracy. Just as America has changed over time, so, too, have the methods by which we cast and count our votes.

In the late 1800s, mechanical voting devices were being introduced in U.S. elections. The State Historical Museum of Iowa has one such technological relic in its vault. 

Leo Landis, State Curator, State Historical Society of Iowa: This one dates to the early 1900s. It's a 1906 model. And so, Iowa was contemporary with the rest of the nation. It was not the earliest adopter of a mechanical voting machine, but certainly right up there with other states. One person goes in, they pull a lever, it registers their vote, and they're done. There's no paper ballot that can be fraudulently recreated, so it was a way to help guarantee the legality and the authenticity of the vote count. 

The famed inventor, Thomas Edison, took out a patent on a mechanical voting machine in 1869, but his device was never used. When it was presented to members of Congress in Washington, D.C., the chairman of the committee responsible for rubber-stamping the machine for government use scoffed, "If there is any invention on Earth that we don't want down here, that is it." It wasn't until 1892, when another inventor, Jacob Myers, demonstrated his own machine in a Lockport, New York town election, that mechanical voting devices really started to become viable options for voters. 

Landis: The curtain would wrap around the voter. The voter would pull a lever that then moved the curtain around so you had secrecy. The idea of a secret ballot was also something that was fairly new in the late 1800s. Most Americans, up until the 1880s, dropped a paper ballot into a box. And it might be colored, and so people could tell how you were voting. And then, as mechanical voting is created, you do get more and more privacy because you're an individual inside a booth. 

Landis: So this would be your ballot initiative line up above here, and then you had your candidates in the rows below. And, of course, this one does have the ability to vote for a straight ticket. So, if you wanted to vote for a straight ticket, you would have lifted up and shifted the lever to the right and that would vote a straight ticket along whatever line you were selecting. You did have room on the far left for different political parties, and then individual candidates would be listed through the row. And so, if you were selecting a candidate, you would have pulled down on the lever and selected that candidate to make your choice, and then just move down, race by race. When you had made your selections by moving the levers, or voting a straight ticket, or the individual levers, as you exited, you then would pull this lever. That would open the curtains mechanically back up and register your vote.

In 1898, Myers took his patent, and along with another inventor, Alfred Gillespie, who was working on his own patented version of a voting machine, organized the company that became the Automatic Voting Machine Corporation. 

Landis: One of the things that a mechanical voting machine does is, it does at least allow a degree of reliability and avoids fraud in an election, in theory. It had a series of locks that a voter registrar would control and thus would be more difficult to manipulate. 

The Automatic Voting Machine Corporation and another company called Shoup Voting Machine Corporation dominated the market in the U.S. for decades. The machines were in use all the way into the 2000s in some precincts. If you ever used the old lever machines, odds are, it was one of these two types. 

Landis: It is said to be one of the first in the state, if not the first in the state. And it has been, though, kept in good condition. It was donated back to the State of Iowa by the American Voting Machine Corporation in the 1960s, so at some point, it went back to the manufacturer of the machine and then they recognized that it was a machine that had been used in Iowa, and it was offered back to the state.

In the words of its inventor, this machine was designed to protect mechanically the voter from rascaldom. While you won't vote with one of these machines today, the mission of Myers remains: An election process that is plain, simple and secret. 

 


Funding for this video provided by the Liberty Fund at Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and Margaret J. Gurau of Ames, Iowa. This project is also supported in part by the State Historical Society of Iowa, Historical Resource Development Program.