August 1 marks the anniversary of an important event in Arlington – and Virginia – election history. The date was August 1, 1950. Yes, there was a primary election that date with a relatively low turnout, which in itself is not that notable.
What’s significant is that the primary on August 1, 1950 was the first time voting machines were used in a Virginia election. In Arlington County.
The machines used were mechanical lever machines, manufactured by the Automatic Voting Machine (AVM) Corporation, Jamestown, NY. If you voted almost anywhere in the U.S. prior to about 1990, there’s a good chance you encountered this type of system. To make your selections, you lower a level next to your choices. Once all selections are made, you pull a larger lever to cast your ballot. Counters on the machine advance for the selections you made and the levers on the front are reset.
Presidential elections and issues encountered by voters during them are often catalysts for electoral changes. Consider the call for uniformity following the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, or President Obama’s pledge to address long lines after 2012.
The 1948 contest, a close race between incumbent Harry S Truman and challenger Thomas Dewey, was no different. Dewey was widely expected to win, prompting the Chicago Daily News to call the election in his favor (remember the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline?). Truman, however, unexpectedly scored an upset.
Although results in Arlington weren’t particularly close in the Presidential contest, where Dewey won the vote easily, there was what The Sun called a “photo finish” in the County Board contest, along with conflicts in reported totals for bond results. The election saw over 20,000 of Arlington’s approximately 28,000 voters go to the polls, up by about 5,000 from the 1944 election.
Added to the electoral chaos and strain on the process was a redistricting decision made earlier in the year that more than doubled the number of precincts in Arlington, from 11 to 24. (The Sun, Feb 6 1948) The result was long lines, confusion, and late results.
Prior to the August 1, 1950 primary, all votes in Virginia were cast on paper ballots, which were then hand-counted by election personnel. In heavy turnout elections like in 1948, this process lasted well into the late hours after the polls closed, often into the next day.
Automated lever machines made their debut in the late 19th Century, where they were used mostly by heavily populated cities to help assure the speed and accuracy of the vote count. Not only did paper ballots take a long time to count by hand, they were also subject to potential tampering via ballot box stuffing or reproduction. Voting machines helped to resolve these issues.
By the mid-20th century, counties, especially those with growing populations like Arlington, also became interested in using voting machines. There was strong community support for machines as a solution to ease Election Day problems, particularly to speed reporting of results.
Machines for Arlington
In January 1949, The Arlington Daily posted an article headlined, “Will Machines Solve Vote Problems Here?” The article states, “Voting machines, hailed as a cure for Arlington’s election ills, would solve some problems easily[.]”
The article goes on to say that the “machines give an accurate, immediate tally of votes when the polls closed, saving hours of tedious ballot counting.”
Prior to the August 1 machine rollout, election staff with assistance from the League of Women Voters conducted countywide outreach to inform voters about the change. Machines were on display at the Arlington, Byrd, Wilson, Glebe, and Buckingham theatres, as well as at the Courthouse and the Barcroft Community House. Demonstration models – we still have one of those in our office – were available at each polling place so voters could practice before casting their ballots.
The machines were a resounding success. An editorial in The Sun on August 4, 1950 says, “Arlington voters met and conquered the mysteries of the voting machine Tuesday – and by way of giving the county another “first” made it the premier user in Virginia of the modern balloting device. Nowhere else in the State has a locality made use of the machines.”
The editorial goes on to praise the fact that for “many years than any but the oldest inhabitant can say,” all of Arlington’s returns were reported before midnight. In fact, all were in within two hours of the polls closing. The first precinct called in a speedy 26 minutes after the polls closed.
The Sun continues, “We feel we can say without fear of contradiction that the machine is here to stay.” Other post-election news stories reported how well the machines were received by voters and election workers alike.
Arlington continued to use the AVM lever machines until 1991, when the heavy and aging equipment was replaced by first-generation full-face ballot electronic machines. The latter were replaced by smaller electronic touchscreen machines in 2003. In 2015, we replaced the electronic machines with the current digital scan paper-based system, giving us the backup of paper with the speed of obtaining quick and accurate results via electronic tabulators.
So what comes next? The Sun editorial from August 4, 1950 closes with this statement: “But hold! Perhaps in a few years television will have a two-way proposition, and the voter can sit at home and cast his ballot with a radar link operated by atomic energy.”
Well, we didn’t exactly get to that point. And it will likely be some time yet before we have secure online voting. For the immediate future anyway, it looks like our current system is here to stay.
Posted August 1, 2018
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