Punch Card Democracy
From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, election districts grew to include millions of potential voters as federal legislation outlawed barriers to voting. The 26th amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to18 in 1971. Elections specialists looked to vote recording systems that could tap the processing power of computers.
The peculiarities of these systems required nimble yet and user-friendly interfaces that guided the voter through complex ballots, often with many offices, candidates, and referendum issues. Computerized vote processing offered economy and speed—an advantage in reporting election returns to an expanding electorate accustomed to the immediacy of television news.

Youth vote poster

In the mid-1960s, violent clashes occurred over the issue of voting rights and racially discriminatory voting practices. Twenty-five thousand people marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965 to protest illegal barriers to voter registration. Later that year the Voting Rights Act authorized federal examiners to register voters. It also banned abuses such as literacy tests; limiting voter registration to those whose fathers and grandfathers had once voted; and primaries in which only white voters could participate. By the end of 1965, 250,000 new African American voters had been registered, one-third of them by federal examiners. This Selma marcher became an icon of the struggle for voting rights in posters that encouraged newly enfranchised youth to vote in the election of 1972.

Photo of Youth vote poster
Enlarge photo of Youth vote poster
Photo of Newsweek cover
Enlarge photo of Newsweek cover

"How will youth vote?" Newsweek

The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 for both state and federal elections. It was ratified June 30, 1971, enfranchising approximately 11 million new voters.

Courtesy Newsweek

IBM Port-A-Punch and stylus

Devised in 1959 for data processing applications such as inventory control, the hand-held IBM Port-a-Punch and stylus inspired the development of the Votomatic vote recorder in 1962.

Photo of IBM Port-A-Punch and stylus
Enlarge photo of IBM Port-A-Punch and stylus
Photo of Coyle brochure
Enlarge photo of Coyle brochure
Photo of Coyle punch card ballot, Greene County, Ohio, 1969
Enlarge photo of Coyle punch card ballot, Greene County, Ohio, 1969
Photo of Coyle vote recorder prototype
Enlarge photo of Coyle vote recorder prototype

Coyle brochure


Coyle punch card ballot


Coyle vote recorder prototype

The Coyle was the first voting machine to turn a punch card into a ballot. The Coyle Voting Machine was developed by Martin A. Coyle and introduced in Butler and Greene Counties, Ohio, in 1961. Candidates and referendum issues are printed directly on the card, and are keyed to pre-scored holes on the card margin to be punched by the voter.

The voter rolls the ballot into the machine for inspection and punching under a large magnifying lens. Illuminated indicator buttons signal if the voter punches too many or too few holes, and green when completed. When finished, the voter rolls the card out of the machine. A counter records the transaction. The ballot may be counted by hand, or collected for computer processing at a central facility.

Votomatic brochure


Votomatic brochure


Sample Votomatic ballot


Votomatic vote recorder, 1964

In the mid-1960s, the Votomatic Vote Recorder challenged and eventually won the market for voting equipment dominated by the gear-and-lever voting machine. The Votomatic features a stylus and a paginated ballot keyed to an underlying punch card.

Election districts in Georgia, Oregon, and California were the first to purchase the Votomatic in 1964. Inventor Joseph P. Harris sold his Votomatic patent to IBM in 1965. IBM sold it to Computer Election Systems in 1969. Shortly after the original patent expired in 1982, approximately half of the American electorate was voting by punch-card system.

Photo of Votomatic brochure
Enlarge photo of Votomatic brochure
Photo of another Votomatic brochure
Enlarge photo of another Votomatic brochure
Photo of Sample Votomatic ballot
Enlarge photo of Sample Votomatic ballot
Photo of Votomatic vote recorder, 1964
Enlarge photo of Votomatic vote recorder, 1964