From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The voting booth was broadcast on the 21st May 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Times have changed since voting began in Athens in the 4th century BC. We don’t congregate in a square and throw a pebble into a pot, one for each candidate, and it’s not just for men, either. Over time, the way votes have been cast and counted has led to a number of different design solutions. None is perfect, which is odd in a sophisticated age when even ordinary folk can fly into space.
The idea of voting in private is an Australian one, first used in Victoria in 1856, and later adopted by the British and the Americans. It wasn’t so much about being screened from others as putting the names of all the candidates on a single ballot paper. Marking it could be done discreetly with the ballot paper then folded and placed in the ballot box, unseen by anyone else until counting started. It was a response to the mayhem that was a hallmark of voting sites, not just in Australia, with voters hectored into voting a particular way.
Ballots go back to the Roman Empire although the word itself comes from the Italian for ball, ballotta, which was used in elections in C16th Venice. The idea of using a ball to vote was popular and persisted, used by Freemasons and in the fusty chambers of London’s gentlemen’s clubs, where black or white balls were used to mark who you wanted elected (and who you didn’t, hence the verb to blackball). Balls and metal tokens were used right into the twentieth century, based on a system promoted in 1838 by the Chartist movement in Britain. The voting box had a hole beside each candidate’s name so that when a ball was dropped into it, a cogged counter turned to mark the vote.
Other mechanical methods appeared, like the lever system patented by American Jacob Myers in 1889, which he dubbed the Poor Man’s Voting Machine because it was simple enough for the most illiterate to use. The voter was faced with a set of push-keys, each differently coloured and named, which would lock when pressed. The vote would be registered before the voter pulled a lever to release the door of the booth, ensuring absolute privacy. The idea in some form persisted even into this century, last used in 2009 in New York.
Another design from the 1890s had voters punching holes in a voting card to show their preferences. IBM perfected it in 1958 with the Port-A-Punch intended for all kinds of work, from traffic surveys to retail inventories. It was the basis for their new Votamatic machines with each voter’s choice punched on a card before being dropped in the ballot box. They were widely used for decades but not without problems, famously in the Bush-Gore Presidential election of 2000 where some cards weren’t properly punched and so disqualified. The incident led to the Voting Booth Project in 2004 where redundant Votamatic machines were used for political commentary by artists and designers like Frank Gehry and David Byrne. One placed a Votamatic machine on legs so high no one could possibly reach it; another was simply flattened by a steamroller.
There are two popular computerised systems today, with a touch screen version that is especially helpful for the visually impaired, and the optical scanning machines that tally the marks on a paper ballot. The Dominion versions were blamed for not giving the desired result in the recent American election, evoking Joseph Stalin’s comment that elections are less about who votes and more about who does the counting. Scanners are used in Australia, the closest we’ve come to a fully automated system. Some ballot papers have so many candidates’ names on them that they’re kept to a maximum size of around a metre.