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Tech by VICE

The First Electronic Voting Machine

The electronic voting machine is dead. Long live the electronic voting machine?

by Brian Anderson
Nov 4 2014, 5:30pm

We might be living in The Future, but we're still a long way off from being able to vote on our phones. If you plan on hitting the polls at some point today, you'll have to settle either for casting a paper ballot or using the touch-based electronic voting machine. I know.

Those electronic voting machines are in trouble though. Nowadays, states are ditching electronic voting tech mainly because the machines are prone to malfunction and are pretty easy to hack. If we are indeed witnessing the death of the electronic voting machine, it's worth eulogizing US3793505 A, a bit of early 70s kitsch that encapsulated yesteryear's promise of seamless democracy.

As far as I can tell, it is the first ever patent filed for an electronic voting machine. And boy, was it a marvel of innovation:

A "diagrammatic perspective view illustrating a generally block type diagram of the system of cooperating elements of the voting machine indicating the flow of information from the phototransistors to the logic units, to the projector and to a counter unit."

The invention couldn't have been filed for patent at a more volatile moment in American history. By the time Hetzel, Kirby, McKay, Syndacker, and Ziebold filed their aptly titled Electronic Voting Machine in mid-November 1972, Richard Nixon had been reelected President, and an end to the Vietnam conflict was still nowhere in sight.

The EVM sought order amid the chaos. Per the patent's abstract, candidates' names and propositions being voted on were projected onto a video screen:

...wherein photo-optical information transmittal circuits are actuated by the light source projecting the voting image and, by means of controlled light sensitive areas on the film strip, energizing phototransistor units in the system to activate voting buttons, check film alignment, operate vote counters and identify the vote, whether it be cumulative, a proposition or an ordinary vote, with the information furnished by the phototransistor units behind read by photosensitive logic united which transmit information to the projector and counter unites.

Voting tech has come a long way since, but the basic idea behind the EVM remains to this day, despite our growing tired of clunky automated voting machines. And the stakes of our continued reliance on automated voting couldn't be higher. After all, this is the most terrifying midterm election in recent memory.