The House held its first electronic vote on January 23, 1973. Members used the system by inserting their voting cards—pocket-sized cards equipped with identification technology unique to each Member—into one of the slotted voting stations in various locations around the House Chamber. To record their votes, Members pressed one of three buttons to indicate their decisions—voting either yea, nay, or present. Since 1973 electronic voting has dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to record votes in the House and in the Committee of the Whole.
For more than 175 years, the House of Representatives conducted every recorded vote manually. A clerk would read out the name of each Representative, who would respond to their names by calling out yea, nay, or present. By the time the House reached its current size of 435 Representatives in the 63rd Congress (1913–1915), each recorded vote took around 30 minutes—sometimes longer. As Congress faced an ever-increasing workload, votes required more and more of the House’s time. In an oral history interview, former Clerk of the House Donnald K. Anderson noted that for years the House had tried to adapt to the demands of a “larger and more complex and diverse” nation while “[squeezing] all of those needs . . . into a 24-hour day.” Between 1886 and 1970, more than 50 bills and resolutions related to electronic or mechanical voting were introduced in the House, but most never made it out of committee. Ultimately, the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 amended House Rules to allow votes to be taken electronically and authorized funding to build an electronic voting system.
Today, most recorded votes in the House of Representatives are taken by electronic device.1 When the presiding officer calls a vote, Members have a set amount of time to record their votes—yea, nay, or present—using one of the many voting stations attached to the rows of seats located around the House Chamber. A small blue light indicates which stations are open. An electronic display board on the south wall of the chamber displays a running tally of the vote. House Rules require the voting period for an electronic vote to be at least 15 minutes. A five-minute vote is permitted if it occurs immediately after another vote.
The use of electronic voting in Congress is unique to the House. The Senate, which is less than a quarter the size of the House, continues to record its votes by calling out the roll.
|1848||Inventors Francis H. Smith, Stephen Bowerman, and R. E. Monaghan each petitioned the House with a proposal to develop a mechanical voting system. Members of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds decided that the voting process did not require modernization and shelved the issue.|
|1869||Thomas Edison presented his patented telegraphic voting machine before a House committee. The chairman rejected Edison’s proposal, declaring that such a machine would push legislation through too quickly and impede the procedural rights of the minority.|
|February 1, 1886||Representative Lewis Beach of New York introduced the first legislation related to electrical and mechanical voting. His resolution sought to look “into the feasibility of a plan for registering votes.”|
|May 15, 1916||The Committee on Accounts held a hearing on H. Res. 223, which established a commission composed of Members and the Clerk of the House to investigate and procure an automated voting system. An electrical engineer testified that the House could save the equivalent of 50 legislative days each Congress with such technology. Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri supported the idea if the price of installing the voting system was “reasonable.” The resolution did not pass.|
|January 2, 1969||The House Democratic Caucus agreed to an internal resolution asking the Clerk to take steps to “improve the vote recording procedures” in the House. Soon after, Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts directed Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, Samuel Friedel of Maryland, to explore the issue.|
|April 1, 1969||Clerk of the House William Pat Jennings issued a report which listed several necessary requirements for the new voting system. It had to be reliable, simple to operate, and minimalist in design in order to conform to the design of the historic House Chamber. It also needed to include a display board that would show the bill number and title, the names of every Member, how they voted, and a running total of the vote results. In addition, the system would have to be capable of accepting input from multiple voting stations placed throughout the chamber.|
|July 20, 1970||A congressional delegation consisting of Representatives Lucien Nedzi of Michigan, Bertram Podell of New York, Samuel Devine of Ohio, and Robert McEwen of New York reported on their trip to the California and Washington state legislatures, where they studied electronic voting systems already in place.|
|July 27, 1970||Representative Robert Leggett of California presented an excerpt of the annual report of the House Reading Clerks on the House Floor. The report indicated that the House, between 1967 and 1969, spent an average of 24 percent of each legislative day calling the roll.|
|October 3, 1970||Representative Lucien Nedzi of Michigan visited the Swedish legislature to examine its voting machine and reported his findings to the Committee on House Administration.|
|October 26, 1970||The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 was signed into law, amending the House Rules to allow roll call votes “through the use of appropriate electronic equipment.” The law also authorized funding for the new system.|
|May 6, 1971||The Committee on House Administration drafted plans to hire a team of technical staff, which eventually became the Office of House Information Systems (HIS).|
|July 1971||Frank Ryan, a mathematics professor and former professional football quarterback, was appointed director of HIS and oversaw the installation of the new voting system.|
|January 23, 1973||The House conducted its first electronic vote, a 15-minute roll call.|
|January 31, 1973||The House took its first recorded (yeas and nays) electronic vote, on H. Res. 176, to set rules for debate on the overhaul of the House committee structure.|
|1977||The vote system was modified to work in conjunction with the television cameras in the House Chamber, which allowed the C-SPAN network to tabulate votes in real time.|
|January 15, 1979||The House amended its rules to allow the Speaker to postpone votes. The increased frequency of recorded votes disrupted Members’ schedules; the rule change allowed votes to be clustered at a particular time of day.|
|January 5, 1981||The Opening Day roll call vote was taken electronically for the first time.|
|105th Congress (1997–1999)||Digital vote cards containing computer chips replaced analog vote cards.|
|2018||The House installed new voting stations equipped with Braille and LCD screens which display the Member’s name when the Member’s card is inserted.|
1The election of the Speaker is conducted by a manual roll call vote. If the electronic voting system malfunctions, according to House Rules, the Speaker may decide to record votes by calling the roll. This has occurred on the following dates: 7 March 1973, 16 May 1973, 11 July 1973, 16-18 July 1973, 17 September 1973, 21 December 1973, 19 September 1985, 4 May 1988, and 6 October 1999.