Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Bringing Electronic Votes to Congress

On January 23, 1973, Members counted down to the conclusion of the historic first electronic vote, which would shift House voting procedures into the 20th century. Reporters later described the event by recalling another recent technological marvel: The atmosphere had the “mood of a moon shot.” However, this moment almost failed to launch.

Thomas Edison Patent Application/tiles/non-collection/4/4-16-electronicvoting_edison_nara.xml Image courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration Thomas Edison filed this patent application for his electrographic vote recorder in 1868.

A Fully Electronic Voting System

“It became quite evident to me that the lack of automation was making a heavy mark upon the administrative operations of the House,” said Clerk of the House W. Pat Jennings in 1969. One proposed solution? Save time during votes by installing an automated, fully electronic voting system.

To investigate the options, staff from the Clerk of the House visited several state legislatures, including Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, where such systems already existed. Some travelled as far as the Swedish Riksdag. However, these systems were electrical-mechanical, unlike the completely electronic system being discussed in the House.

They discovered that a new system would shorten the time it took to conduct roll calls, which in 1969 took up 23 percent of the legislative day. As a result, the Committee on House Administration’s Special Subcommittee on Electrical and Mechanical Office Equipment recommended in their final report that one be commissioned. This led to the House passing the final version of the Legislative Reorganization Act on October 8, 1970. The proposed system cost about $1 million, and featured a lit display of Members’ votes, as well how much time remained on a vote.

“I have just two words to say about your new system. . . Do it.”

Letter from Fletcher Thompson to Joe Waggonner/tiles/non-collection/4/4-16-electronicvoting_thompson_to_waggonner_nara.xml Image courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration Georgia Representative Fletcher Thompson wrote this letter to Representative Joe Waggonner, Chairman of the Special Subcommittee on Legislative Reorganization, expressing his concern about electronic voting.
Like most major changes to a workplace, the proposal was met with both enthusiasm and dismay. “Having 435 Members, you will have almost as many points of view as you have Members,” said Louisiana Representative Joseph Waggonner, chairman of the Special Subcommittee on Legislative Reorganization.

Some worried the system required them to be on the floor too quickly, since House Members are more likely to be in another building when a vote is called. “All of us do enough walking that we can do it pretty quickly, but I do not know if I can make it from . . . the Rayburn Building to the House in three minutes,” said New York Representative Robert McEwen. Others expressed concerns the system would allow a Member to use a colleague’s card to cast multiple votes.

These concerns were nothing new. Proposals to modernize the voting process had been offered and promptly rejected since the mid-19th century. Even Thomas Edison once observed the amount of time taken up by votes and received his first recorded patent on an “electrographic vote recorder” in 1868. His invention was dismissed by Members of Congress after he came to Washington to perform a demonstration showing how much faster votes could occur. “Young man, that is just what we do not want,” said one committee chairman, on the grounds that speedy votes would impact the minority party’s ability to influence votes.

There were, of course, more practical worries to the final proposal in 1970. In response to a memo informing members of the details, Representative Fletcher Thompson of Georgia wrote to Joseph Waggonner, asking if the congressional ID card could also serve as a voting card. “I don’t want any more cards to carry around,” he said.

Letter from Otis G. Pike to Samuel N. Friedel/tiles/non-collection/4/4-16-electronicvoting_otispike_nara.xml Image courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration New York Representative Otis G. Pike sent this short missive to give his support to electronic voting to Samuel N. Friedel, Chairman of the Committee on House Administration.
However, some responded with approval. “I have just two words to say about your new system,” New York Representative Otis Pike wrote to Samuel Friedel, Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, “Do it.” The last on the alphabetical roll call list, Minnesota Representative John M. Zwach, said he was the most aware of “how much time we waste on roll calls” and declared, “the last shall be first.”

A Historic Quorum Call

There were no votes scheduled for January 23, 1973, the first day the system was ready; however, eager to test the new system, Representatives used it during the quorum call. Despite a few Members struggling with the cards, the quorum call time reduced from 45 to 15 minutes. The room counted down the final 10 seconds, then celebrated the new system’s success with cheers and applause.

The new system’s successful launch was followed by a few bumps in the road. The system broke down in March, and one of the first votes using the system failed to record Majority Leader Tip O’Neill’s vote. O’Neill, however, was a fan of the system: “Attendance at votes has improved considerably,” he said.

It also came at a personal cost. Florida Representative Charles E. Bennett broke his 22-year-long record of successive roll call votes in 1974 when the new shorter time meant he couldn’t return to the building when a vote was called. “Ever since the electronic voting machine was installed last year,” he said, “I knew I was going to get caught.”

Sources: Record Group 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on House Administration, Subcommittee on Electrical and Mechanical Office Equipment, 91st Congress, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; Hearings before the Committee on Rules, To Establish a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, 89th Congress, 1st sess. (1965); Hearings before the Special Committee on Electrical and Mechanical Office Equipment of the Committee on House Administration, Computer System—Vote Recording Procedures, 90th Congress, 2nd sess. (1969); Providing Funds for the Committee on House Administration, H. Res. 710, 91st Cong. (1969); Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 2nd sess. (27 July 1970): 25819-25820; Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992); Washington Post, 14 October 1972, 30 January 1973, 8 February 1974; Los Angeles Times, 26 December 1972; New York Times, 24 January 1973; Boston Globe, 7 July 1974.