America was founded when men would go to a local gathering spot and loudly declare their vote.
Elections were communal times of eating, drinking and even debating on decision day. Sobriety wasn’t a requirement as some polls were held in taverns.
When it was time to vote, the manly thing to do was to stand up and declare the choice proudly. That makes Oklahoma’s ban on selfies with ballots seem silly.
Those gatherings weren’t massive undertakings because only 10 percent to 20 percent of people in our young country had a right to vote. Only white men who were 21 and owned property were allowed a say. Jews, Catholics and Quakers were also excluded.
Elections were still haphazard as state legislatures set various places, times and qualifications of electors. The northern states had more somber gatherings with women bringing “election cakes,” while the South got a little rowdier.
(Even those election cakes — also called muster cakes — got a little boozy as whiskey was mixed with the molasses, raisins, spices, currants and nuts.)
After George Washington’s terms ended, political parties got more divisive, and things got nasty quick between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Voters wanted some anonymity.
By 1880, all states but Virginia and Kentucky had gone to secret paper ballots. The land ownership mandate was dropped in most states too. Kentucky kept the vocal voting until at least 1888.
Casting paper ballots was still a production.
Voters would move to the front of a line, ascend the occasional dais and place a folded ballot in a wooden box as others looked on.
Eventually, party bosses prepared ballots with their choices, creating a system rife with fraud.
A ballot-buying scandal in the 1888 presidential election led nine states to adopt a secret ballot method the following year. By 1892, voters in 38 states cast secret ballots.
Paper ballots remained a staple of American elections as voting rights expanded to include minorities, women and citizens over age 18.
As technologies became sophisticated, states adopted different methods to prevent fraud and be more efficient in tallying ballots.
After the 2000 Florida voting debacle added “hanging chad” to our language, states replaced antiquated systems leading to a rise of the machines.
In 2002, the Help America Vote Act banned the use of lever machines and punch cards in federal elections, required all precincts have at least one machine accessible to voters with disabilities and provided money for states to update their systems.
Nearly all states use some computer-assisted technology.
Those with cyber functions have been put into doubt after intelligence agencies found the U.S. election infrastructure was targeted in 2016 by actors sponsored by the Russian government. It showed vulnerability in some of the state systems.
In August, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report calling for all federal, state and local elections be conducted with “human-readable paper ballots” by the 2020 presidential election.
The group also recommends that ballots marked by voters not be returned over the Internet or any network connected to it. It believes no current technology can guarantee secrecy, security and verifiability.
Currently, Oklahoma is one of 18 states using paper ballots, which is the wisest choice. Machines tally the votes, but the ballots are kept.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia use paper ballots interfacing with a recording device such as a touch screen, dials or buttons that leave a paper trail for a possible physical recount. Three states require mailed-in ballots.
Fifteen states use technology that doesn’t leave a paper trail. The remaining three states use paper ballots, but their counties vary on whether physical documents are left in the system.
In August, Oklahoma Election Board officials held a press conference to reassure residents about the security of the state’s system and detailing protocols.
“We have paper ballots and always have,” said spokesman Bryan Dean. “The only thing our machines do is count the paper ballots much faster than we possibly could manually.”
Oklahoma law requires maintaining the physical security of the ballots, which includes witnesses from both parties at every precinct sealing boxes containing the ballots before they are transferred to the county election board.
Ballots are placed in a locked room secured by the county sheriff. Recounts require testimony to a judge by the sheriff and county election board secretary that security has been maintained.
In the days before the counting machines, Oklahoma put four people as counters at each precinct in a secured room to tally ballots throughout the day, Dean said.
Returning to that system would require twice the number of workers at each precinct, and it’s already hard to find enough staff. Also, keeping the count secret through the day would be more challenging in our social media world.
Waiting to count manually at the day’s end would mean a wait of a day or more for results.
“At the end of the day, you would still be trusting the people doing the counting,” Dean said. “Our system is accurate and secure. We have paper ballots in case there is ever a question.”