In the beginning, voting was public.
Initially, voters in the United States (mostly White males who owned property) gathered to “publicly cast their vote out loud (viva voce). Poll workers recorded each voter’s declaration in a handwritten poll book.
They were public events with individual voting occurring in plain sight of the crowds that election days once attracted. They were the culmination of weeks of excited electioneering. In large cities, they were public spectacles, with torchlight parades… In rural places, election days often coincided with markets and sale days. In both contexts, crowds of voters and non-voters, the eligible and the ineligible, young and old, men and (some) women gathered at pubic polling places and watched as the voters, one by one, stepped out from the crowd to vote.
By 1828, Maryland became the last state to remove its religious requirements for voters. With that change in law, male Jews were given the vote.
By the mid-1800s, almost all states voted by ballot. However, those ballots were created by the political parties. Voting was often accompanied not only by alcohol but with violence.
The ticket of each party was separate, and, as a general rule, could be distinguished, even when folded, from all other tickets as far as it could be seen. Frequently the party tickets were of a different color.
In The County Election, artist-politician George Bingham depicts such a scene in Missouri; he stood for election to the state legislature in 1846 (contested) and 1848 (successfully). By the 1860s, most voters no longer needed to own property, but they needed to be White and male.
We did not adopt a secret ballot provided by the government until after the Civil War. We imported the idea from Australia via Britain. By 1896, Americans in 39 of 45 states cast official government ballots, secretly. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave Black men the right to vote, extending the franchise.
Secret ballots made vote buying more difficult, but it did not deal a fatal blow to the practice.
[C]harges of vote-buying may seem very nineteenth century, but in fact such allegations, and proved behavior, continue in our times… In 2016 a federal jury convicted two Magoffin county (Kentucky) officials of vote-buying in relation to a county election in 2014.
As officials sought to make voting more private and secure, women were advocating for the vote. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote. On 27 February 1922, the US Supreme Court unanimously upheld it in Leser v. Garnett.
Voting technologies continued to evolve. By 1930, every major American city had implemented lever machines. This technology was opaque: the voter couldn’t see if the machine recorded her vote as it had been cast. We traded voter transparency for speed of counting votes.
The lever machine evolved to the punch card. Fraud was more difficult; voter ability to see if the ballot was as cast was impossible. Plus, we had visible evidence of flawed technology: hanging chads.
Two counties in Georgia used punch cards that could be counted by computers in the 1964 Presidential primary election. Hanging chads in Florida counties in the 2000 Presidential election brought the punch card era to a close.
Voting by verifiable paper audit trail or verified paper record provides visible feedback to a voter who is using a computer terminal (which might be an iPad) to vote. Does this ballot reflect my wishes? Moreover, these paper ballots provide a way to determine if the computer is counting ballots accurately as well as paper ballots for any needed recounts.
Some states now vote 100% by mail ballot, which privileges voter convenience and transparency – plus secrecy – over the speed of knowing who won. These states provide accessible voting centers for those who have special needs or would prefer to vote in a public space.
Vote by mail is the most egalitarian voting system (it accommodates all working schedules). Implemented properly, it is the most secure voting system. It should provide alternatives for voter who need assistance. It may present challenges for victims of domestic violence.