Voting Machines: History, Security, and Potential Problems

The history of voting machines is a testament to the evolution of a country's democracy, from simple voice voting to more complex electronic systems.

The progression of the voting mechanism mirrors the pursuit of a more accessible and secure voting process. But each technological advancement brings new challenges. Examining the integrity and credibility of election results is essential. Controversy in recent elections emphasizes these challenges.

This article looks into the development of a voting mechanism. It also discusses recent challenges the voting system has encountered and current voting technology used in the country.

Evolution of the Voting Mechanism

The voting mechanism changed over the years, from voice voting to handwritten ballots. The voting mechanism has evolved in the past 200 years to adapt to changing times.

Voice Voting

During the first 50 years of American elections, voting wasn't done privately. Voters would go to local courthouses and cast their votes by calling them out loud. Although straightforward, this method lacks privacy. It was also prone to vulnerabilities such as coercion and influence.

The First Paper Ballots

In the early 19th century, the first paper ballots started appearing. This allowed voters to vote privately. From the start, the paper ballots were only made of scraps of paper, and voters would write down the names of the candidates and drop them in a ballot box. Then, newspapers started printing blank ballots for readers to tear and fill in. By the 19th century, political parties started distributing pre-printed fliers to voters listing only candidates from their political party.

The Australian Paper Ballot

During the mid-19th century, partisan paper ballots were prominent. This led to rampant accusations of voter fraud. It also called for election reform. Then, in 1858, a solution from Australia started the first government-printed, standardized paper ballot. Massachusetts and New York first adopted standardized paper ballots in the United States.

The First Voting Machines

In the late 19th century, the “automatic booth" voting machine came to dominate the election system in America. Jacob H. Myers invented the lever-operated voting machine. This allowed the efficiency of counting votes.

Punch Cards

Companies like IBM introduced the punch card voting system in the 1960s. The innovation counts ballots by computers, which could produce instant vote tallies. But the 2000 presidential election revealed a significant flaw in punch cards. Election officials encountered a few issues with partially detached or incompletely punched cards. Election officials were then forced to manually check each punch card and decide whether they should count the vote or not. This highlighted the vulnerability of this voting system.

Voting by iPad

In 2002, the Congress legislated the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). This law mandated higher standards for the types of equipment used in federal elections. HAVA assumed that the future of voting lies in touch screen technology. So, iPad touchscreen voting machines became rampant in early 2000. But software glitches created errors in voter tallies. Then, in the 2016 presidential election, hackers from Russia targeted electronic voting machines in 21 states.

Because of this, various states have removed touchscreen voting machines. They went back to paper-based ballots.

Scantron Voting

In the 1960s, a competing voting machine called “scantron," or optical scanning machine, hit the market. The fill-in-the-bubble forms used in standardized tests in schools inspired the scantron. Nowadays, the scantron is the most popular means to cast a vote. This is particularly true because of the fears of hacking voting machines. Election officials can also easily mail fillable ballots to voters. This method also reduced the need for volunteers at polling places. It expanded the time frame to vote on or before the election day.

What Are the Voting Mechanisms Used Today?

The types of technology and voting machines used in the United States continue to evolve. As of 2024, polling stations in the U.S. use any of the following voting equipment:

Ballot-Marking Devices and Systems (BMDs)

BMDs enable the electronic display of ballots for voters. This allows voters to pick their candidates in the election electronically. After selecting their candidate, the voting machine prints out a paper ballot that voters can read to confirm their choice. BMDs were initially designed to help voters with disabilities. But nowadays, more jurisdictions have adopted the use of BMDs.

Optical Scan Voting Systems

In this system, voters pick their candidates by shading an oval, box, or another specified shape on a paper ballot. A voting machine scans the paper ballot for tabulation at a centralized counting place or the polling station.

Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) Systems

The DRE system uses computer technology to record and save votes directly into the computer's memory. This voting system may use dials, mechanical buttons, or touchscreen devices for voter interaction. The computer's hard drive or memory cartridge secures the ballots. Also, some DRE systems are equipped with voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) printers. This printer produces paper records of the votes that can be kept for verification in case of audit or recount.

Do you know what voting equipment is used in your state? This table contains the voting equipment used by each state in the November 3, 2020, general election.

Understanding the Challenges and Security of Election Systems

The following are some of the challenges encountered by the election system in the U.S.—in particular, in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election:

Erosion of Public Confidence

Conspiracy theories about tampering with voting machines and election fraud undermined public confidence in the integrity of U.S. elections. This has resulted in a decrease of trust in the election process.

Programming Errors and Voting Machine Malfunctions

After the 2020 election, allies of the presidential candidate Donald Trump focused on the programming error in a Michigan county. But, after comprehensive assessments, the programming error was an isolated incident that didn't impact the election results.

Lack of Uniform Voting Technology

The varying voting systems across different jurisdictions in the U.S. can lead to inconsistencies in the voting process. This has also created challenges in creating uniform election security infrastructure.


The spread of conspiracy theories about voting machines and false claims of election fraud have challenged the electoral process. Despite no evidence of fraud, this election misinformation has created doubt in the public. It also necessitated measures to counter misinformation and reinforce the credibility of election results.

Are Voting Machines Secure?

The simple answer is no. Any system run by software and machines is vulnerable to cyberattacks. That is why experts were pushing for the replacement of paperless voting machines.

But U.S. voting machines have significantly advanced following the security concerns in the 2016 elections. For instance, in 2017, the U.S. government designated the voting system as a critical infrastructure. This means that election security is critically important, on par with the banking system, dams, and nuclear power plants.

Using paper ballots and paper trails enhanced the integrity of the voting process. Paper trails enabled easier post-election audits. It also strengthened electronic tabulation.

These days, around 93% of ballots cast have a paper trail, enabling audit and voting verification. Although there is no hackproof voting technology, ballots can be counted and audited - by hand and electronically - to tally and affirm the number of votes. For instance, in Georgia, poll workers counted presidential ballots three times to affirm President Joe Biden's win in the 2020 election.

Congress also allocated almost $900 million in election security budget to states. The government used this fund to update election technology, improve cybersecurity defense, and hire more cybersecurity staff.

According to an election security expert, Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice, there is no invulnerable system. But it does not mean that the country cannot do better. The government should always seek to improve election infrastructure, even though it can't eliminate security risks.

When in Doubt, Seek Legal Advice

If you have concerns about potential voter fraud and the integrity of voting machines, consulting a legal expert is your best course of action. An election campaign and political lawyer can offer invaluable legal advice. They can help you safeguard your voting rights and guide you when you have questions relating to your state's voting system. Contact an election campaign and political lawyer today to learn more.

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