Did you hear about the Ohio voting machine scandal? Either the devices were unreliable or someone tampered with them to rig the election — a machine was discovered that awarded every single vote to one candidate. “The discrepancy was so marked, in this case that an error was apparent at a glance,” reported the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. But the allegations weren’t about the much-discussed electronic voting problems in 2004 Ohio (which still scores about 182,000 Google hits); it was about problems with mechanical voting machines in Ohio more than a century ago. And, like skeptics today, Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley argued in March, 1906, that the machines were fatally flawed because there was no paper ballot trail for recounts.

The reliability of voting machines was a hot topic that month in Santa Rosa — a real estate company even used the theme for an ad, seen at right — because the U.S. Standard Voting Machine company was trying to convince the City of Roses to buy them. The issue came to climax at a March 6th City Council meeting. One public speaker complained that the machines were too hard to use: “Many people have tried the machines of late and it has been proven that as a rule they are ignorant of the workings of the machine, and unless there could be a lesson given every day between now and the time of the election, it will be the means of disfranchising a large number of the voters of the city.”

But the most compelling speaker that evening was Democratic Party mover-and-shaker Thomas J. Geary, who argued that the “voting machine is an instrument of bossism” and intended to deprive the people of their rights. As reported in the Republican newspaper, Geary created “considerable amusement” as he “…read from the instructions printed on each of the machines, where in order to vote a straight ticket the voter is instructed to ‘pull back the lever until the bell rings.’ He made considerable sport of the fact that the voter must ring a bell when he goes to vote, and stated that he was not particular about having his vote announced by the ringing of a bell.”

Geary preyed upon a common fear with his remark that the machines encouraged “bossism.” Everyone in that audience knew that San Francisco was under the thumb of corrupt political boss Abe Reuf, whose Union Labor party had won re-election just a few months earlier. Reformers had forged a Republican-Democrat “fusion” ticket that had wide support, but contributing to its failure was that voters had to pick out those candidates individually on the ballot. And the new voting machines probably did make such split-ticket voting more difficult; imagine yourself as Mr. 1905 San Francisco Voter (no vote for California women until 1912, remember) who has never seen a voting machine before. You enter the booth and the curtain automatically shuts behind your back. In front of you is a bewildering wall of brass switches. With only a couple of minutes to vote, searching for the reform candidates was daunting; the path of least resistance was to pull a single lever and vote along straight party lines. *

Adding to the distrust of the machines were sensationalist articles in some of the San Francisco pro-reform papers, warning that Reuf could have rigged them. “MACHINE CAN BE FIXED AND VOTERS MUST BE ALERT,” screamed a headline in the October 31, 1905 San Francisco Call. “GRAVE DANGER LIES IN MACHINE DEFECT.” The Bulletin newspaper also joined in warning that corrupt city bosses might rig the machines with rubber bands attached to the counters for opposition candidates, which would snap the counters back into the neutral position; when the voter pulled the lever to record his ballot, there would be no vote entered for the rubber-banded reformers. (Articles and graphics from out-of-town papers don’t really belong here, but the layout from the Call, seen at right, is remarkable.)

Geary’s gripe about the bell was another exaggerated “danger.” Yes, a bell rang when the voter pulled a lever, but the purpose was to let know that he was now free to leave the voting booth, if desired; a curtain had closed behind him when he entered the booth, and it could not be opened until at least one vote had been recorded, notified by the bell.

Geary’s speech settled the matter; the Santa Rosa City Council voted unanimously to stick with the “Australian ballot system” (what we’d call today a hand-counted paper ballot; candidates and their party affiliations are printed on paper and the voter makes a mark next to the names).

As for the reliability of these early voting machines and the possibility of mischief, it appears that the gizmos received a bad rap. No rubber-band tampering was ever found in San Francisco, and an article about voting machines in a 1905 technical magazine noted that such tampering is “possible but stupid” because the rubber band would be visible to the voter. A scan of 1905-1906 newspaper stories nationwide finds no complaints except in New Jersey, where political bosses placed the machines just in districts inclined to split-ticket voting, thus creating the same obstacles that voters faced in San Francisco. And as for the Ohio machine where all the votes suspiciously went to one candidate, no mention can be found. Either the incident had happened years before, or the Press Democrat was spinning tales.

* Geary’s “bossism” speech marked the second time in a few months that Democrats in Santa Rosa had interjected 1905 San Francisco election politics into local issues. The previous September, PD editor Finley had compared a Santa Rosa reform group to the Citizen’s Alliance, a despised organization of anti-labor thugs. In the San Francisco election, Boss Reuf primarily won by dishonestly linking the reformers with the group.

The agent for one of the various voting machines now on the market has tendered the city free use of his machines at the approaching municipal election, with the idea that their purchase will probably follow, together with that of sufficient others to equip the county.

So much has been heard regarding the wonders of the voting machine that one almost hates to admit, even to himself, that the only real argument in their favor is that they satisfy public curiosity as to the result of the election a little sooner than can be done under the present system.

Opposed to this are many disadvantages [sic].

We have yet to hear of a case where anyone has been injured by having to wait until the following morning to ascertain the result of an election; in fact the uncertainty of the few hours first following the closing of the polls is what adds most to the interest of such affairs.

The first argument against the voting machine is that it is a machine and as such is of course apt to get out of order at any time and without warning, either electing the wrong man or invalidating the entire election.

The second, and perhaps the most serious objection, is that the machines now on the market are constructed upon an incorrect principle. They are all built with the idea of encouraging “straight voting,” where the safety and very existence of our present form of government depends upon encouraging the independent voter. Public sentiment is running strong against the “straight ticket” idea, and it is highly probably that before long our laws will be so amended as to do away with the present form of ballot entirely, compelling every voter to exercise his choice for or against each individual candidate, as was the case under the old Australian ballot system. When this is done the voting machines now in use will become worthless, and others built upon the new principal will have to be purchased to take their place. It therefore follows that this is not a very good time to buy voting machines, whether one is in favor of or opposed to them.

The voting machine is different from any other machine in that its mistakes cannot be corrected. The work of the adding machine, the typewriter and the Linotype can be done over again in cases where errors are discovered, but no such rectifying of mistakes is possible with the voting machine. The voter records his wish and goes his way, no one knows where, and he leaves no record of his action save that contained in the inner mechanism of the machine. When later in the day, the machine is found to be out of order, it is impossible to round up all the voters the second time, and so the entire day’s work is lost.

In case the disarrangement is not discovered, somebody is “counted out.”

According to a report telegraphed from Ohio not long ago, when a voting machine was opened at the close of the day’s run it was found that one candidate had received two or three thousand votes and his opponent none at all. The discrepancy was so marked, in this case that an error was apparent at a glance, but if it had been less so it might have never been noticed.

A very strong argument against the voting machine is that it leaves no record of its procedure, and in case a dispute arises as to the correctness of its figures, there is no possible way of settling it. Under the present system it is always possible to rectify mistakes, even after the result has been announced by referring to the returns or recounting the ballots, or both.

The first cost of the voting machine is very heavy; and the money paid for them goes to manufacturers residing in the east. Between elections the machines must be stored, and a thorough overhauling at the hands of an expert is necessary each time before they can be placed in commission. In addition to the heavy expenditure required in their purchase and maintenance, about the same amount must be paid out for assistance as under the present system. Although it is claimed that such is not the case, it is very probable that no real saving is effected by the introduction of the voting machine. Figuring interest on the cost of the investment, wear and tear, etc., and considering the likelihood of having to throw the machine out of commission after a few years’ use, the cost of conducting elections is in all probability considerably greater where the machine is used than under the hand system.

And the entire amount paid out for conducting elections under the present system goes to the citizens and taxpayers of the county.

It may be that some people will contend that voting machines should be introduced here at once, but we are inclined to believe that if such is the case, it is only because they have failed to consider the matter in all its aspects.

As we see it, there is nothing to be gained by the introduction of machines within the city or the county at the present time. The forty or fifty thousand dollars that it would cost can be expended to far better advantage in other directions.

– March 6, 1906 Press Democrat editorial

Council Rescind Former Resolution
Petition Presented and Considerable Oratory Feature of Proceedings

By unanimous vote the members of the City Council at their meeting last night rescinded a resolution passed at a previous meeting providing for the use of voting machines at the coming municipal election. Many citizens were present at the meeting, and when Mayor Overton declared the motion carried, the hall rang with applause.

A petition very numerously signed was first read. It asked that the resolution heretofore passed providing for the use of voting machines should be allowed to stand, and called attention to the use of machines elsewhere, etc. The petition was placed on fine.

Then Attorney L. W. Julliard, representing Frank C. Jordan, agent for the voting machine, stepped to the front. He stated that he had received a telephone message a short time before asking him to appear and stating that owing to a failure to make train connections Mr. Jordan found himself left over night at Stockton and unable to reach Santa Rosa in time for the meeting. Jordan asked that the machine matter be delayed until Wednesday night when he could be present.

Councilman Wallace moved that the former resolution passed by the City Council allowing the use of voting machines be rescinded. Councilman Donahue seconded the motion. Then the debate on the question began, and Mayor Overton gave anyone who desired to speak an opportunity to do so.

John Robinson, the well known proprietor of the Eagle hotel, was not slow in accepting the Mayor’s invitation for an expression of views. Mr. Robinson said there was no doubt but that the agent of the voting machine had fully explained his wares to the council, and he could not be blamed for endeavoring to get business for his company. He thought, however, that possibly the passing of the resolution two weeks ago was a little hasty, and he mentioned Mayor Overton’s desire as expressed at the time to have the matter considered further. The speaker called attention to the complications of the mechanism he had seen men contend with when they attempted to practice voting on a machine, and he did not mince language when he declared with some emphasis that the use of machines here on election day would practically disfanchise a great many good people. He though that if the resolution was not rescinded it would be a very serious mistake.

Attorney Julliard in behalf of Mr. Jordan took the floor to extol the virtues of the machine and if he had been speaking for himself and also was the agent, his argument could hardly have been more persuasive. He said that the arguments against the use of the machines could almost as well be applicable to the Australian ballot. He cited elections in other cities and towns where machines had worked, presumably like a charm.

Before Colonel Julliard spoke, Councilman King said he would like to hear what the Hon. T. J. Geary had to say, Mr. Geary being an interested but silent looking-on at the proceedings. Colonel Julliard had his inning first, and during the course of his remarks he (Colonel Julliard) called attention to the incorrect statement published in an evening paper stating that Mr. Geary was in favor of the machines.

Mr. Geary spoke forcibly and eloquently in opposing the introduction of voting machines here at the present time. He said it was no stroke of economy to use the machines because there would have to be the usual election officers and other matters to provide for. He said he was opposed to voting machines as at present constructed which were in direct opposition to the tendency of the people in their use of the ballot. Voting machines, he declared, with much emphasis, were made for the benefit of the bosses and for the depriving of the people of their rights. They were made, he said, to permit the bosses’ coercing the people and were used as a means to get them to do their bidding. Things had come to such a pass he declared that it was often a choice between two sets of bosses nowadays, and people under the pretense of freedom had become abject slaves of bosses and of bossism. The tendency of the times, he said, was to destroy the bosses and there was also a strong tendency against party tickets, and a growth of an intelligent sentiment which demands that people thing and vote for themselves. Amid applause the speaker declared the “voting machine is an instrument of bossism.” He went on to say that he believed the present ballot law would be changed within two years.

Colonel Julliard replied to some of the things the previous speaker had touched on, and said that out of courtesy to Mr. Jordan the matter might be laid over until Wednesday night when that gentleman could be here.

Mr. Robinson said he had learned through the public press of the city and in other ways to show that the people generally did not want the voting machine.

J. L. Jordan said he preferred and he thought the majority preferred that the coming election should be voted in the old way.

In further proof of his statements Mr. Geary brought in a minature voting machine which had been place in the anteroom for inspection, and his reading of the directions and the explanations afforded considerable merriment and drove home to a clinch some of the claims he had made.

The vote on the question was then called for and Councilmen Reynolds, Donahue, Brown, Wallace, King and McDonough all voted a hearty “Aye,” and the spectre of the voting machine at the coming city election vanished. The city will pay the cost of the freight in bringing the voting machines here as agreed.

– March 7, 1906 Press Democrat

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