03 Oct 2011

Lost Capitol Hill: E-Voting in the Capitol

Electronic voting as a means of choosing elected officials has not taken this country by storm, and in fact may be on the wane. Issues with accuracy and transparency have dogged these machines from the outset. But there is one group that has been using such automated systems without problems for over 40 years: Congress itself.

However, even there, this was not a change that came overnight, but rather took – as we will see – over 100 years to implement.

 In 1869, a 22-year-old inventor and a fellow telegrapher, who had invested 100 dollars in the scheme, traveled to DC with a new invention in their bags: A method for tabulating votes in Congress. The inventor had been intrigued by reports of several state legislatures who had installed such devices, but his went far beyond the current technology.

His device allowed for each legislator to have a series of buttons on his desk to allow a Aye or Nay vote, the votes being tabulated at the front with a system that printed the names of the Congressmen along with their votes, such that a permanent record of each count could be kept by the Speaker. Specially prepared paper was required for this, and a small electric charge placed on each name ensured that it would be affixed on the paper.

Drawing from patent 90,646. (Google patents)

The inventor and his investor had no problems securing an interview with the person responsible for the adoption of such a device, and launched into an impassioned explication of the merits of the invention, particularly in how the Speaker would only have “to glance at the dial and annouce the result,” which would “save several hours of public time every day in the session.”

They sat back, convinced that they were onto a good thing, when their counterpart exclaimed “Young man, that won’t do at all! That is just what we do NOT want. Your invention would destroy the only hope the minority have of influencing legislation. It would deliver them over, bound hand and foot, to the majority. The present system gives them a weapon which is invaluable, and as the ruling majority always knows that it may some day become a minority, they will be as much averse to any change as their opponents.”

Or words to that effect: This represents what the inventor remembered of the meeting some 20 years after the fact. Either way, the two hopeful inventors accepted the force of the argument, and returned home “as much crushed as it was possible to be at my age.”

The inventor was none other than Thomas Alva Edison, and, although this invention never made any money for him, it was his first invention for which he received a patent, and set him on the path that would gain him another 1,092 patents as well as an fortune that he could have scarcely imagined in 1869. As to Dewitt C. Roberts, his fellow telegrapher, who not only put up the money, but also was listed as a witness on the patent application, he seems to have disappeared into the mists of history.

(All quotes above from George Parsons Lathrop “Talks With Edison” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1890. p.425)

Next week: A couple more false starts.

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