Historical Highlights

Mid-nineteenth century proposals for electronic voting in the House

March 02, 1848
Mid-nineteenth century proposals for electronic voting in the House Original petition of Francis H. Smith, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration Inventor Francis H. Smith petitioned the House of Representatives to allow him to create a "voting register" to automatically tally voting.
On this date, inventor Francis H. Smith of Baltimore petitioned the House to develop a legislative telegraph to tally the yeas and nays. Smith dubbed his invention the “voting register,” and included a prototype for his design with the petition. Smith was one of three inventors in early 1848 to ask the House to adopt automated voting systems. All the proposals were referred to the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds. Under the leadership of Chairman John W. Houston of Delaware, the committee reviewed Smith’s design as well as those of Stephen Bowerman and R.E. Monaghan. The committee preferred Smith’s register, a small cabinet at the Clerk’s desk. When a printed list of Members was placed in the register and Representatives tapped “yea” or “nay” keys at their desks (each wired under the flooring to the register), a piston punched the sheet to record individuals’ votes. Multiple copies could be produced simultaneously to distribute to newspaper reporters. “The vote of the whole House is given simultaneously, without the possibility of mistake or failure,” explained an entry in the Congressional Globe. Smith received endorsements from former House Clerks Benjamin French and Matthew St. Clair Clarke. “I have long wished to see the experiment tried of taking votes by some mechanical contrivance,” French wrote in a letter of recommendation. “. . . I do not doubt that, if adopted, [Smith’s system] will be successful.” Despite these recommendations, the committee couldn’t reach a consensus. Chairman Houston supported the venture. But every other committee member believed that electronic voting, “is not expedient or desirable to change the present mode of taking the yeas and nays, which has existed from the foundation of the government, and that no machine should be adopted for that purpose.” Nevertheless, in deference to Houston, the committee consented that the issue should be brought before the whole House. Hometown newspapers cheered on the local inventor. “I hear the wish, that Smith’s fixtures were in operation, expressed many times to-day,” a reporter for the Baltimore Patriot wrote. “The taking of the yeas and nays so many times in a day, is a bore—a perfect bore!” Chairman Houston reported the committee’s findings on May 20, 1848. But, as the Baltimore Sun predicted, the House adjourned in August without taking up the matter for a vote. Despite repeated calls for modernizing the voting process, the House would not implement electronic voting until 1973.

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