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Old Hand’s New Voting Machines Put to Work

Times Staff Writer

John Ahmann, you might say, engineered Tuesday’s election.

He’s done it in Los Angeles once before, in 1968, when he was the lead engineer on the IBM team that provided Los Angeles County with its first Votomatic punch-card machines. In the 35 years that followed, more than 100 million ballots were cast on the devices in the county until they were retired after last month’s recall election.

Thousands who turned out Tuesday to vote in local elections cast ballots for the first time on the new Inkavote machines, which Ahmann, 65, designed specifically for use in Los Angeles.

The Inkavote machines look deceptively like the Votomatics they replaced. Voters slide numbered ballot cards into blue plastic units loaded with ballot pages that must be flipped, jukebox-style, to reveal successive lists of candidates.

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But instead of punching holes with the familiar metal stylus, voters poke the ballot with a felt-tip pen, and the cards come out speckled with black dots rather than holes. The votes then can be counted by optical scanners instead of Jetsons-era punch-card readers.

“This is not a foreign concept,” Ahmann said. “It’s more of an adaptation.”

When Ahmann went to work for IBM’s election technology unit in Northern California in 1966, voters nationwide were accustomed to enormous paper ballots or bulky lever machines. He said he decided to take the job in part because he had been rejected by the Air Force for being, at 6 feet 8, too tall.

“There were guys dying out there in Vietnam then, and I thought, well, here’s something I can do,” Ahmann said. “I can make elections better.”

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Ahmann’s first project was producing punch-card devices for Santa Clara that year.

“The biggest problem we had? Hanging chads!” he said.

Los Angeles County bought the Votomatics in 1968, paying IBM $10 million to replace paper ballots so large that people nicknamed them “bedsheet” ballots.

Ahmann had transferred to IBM in New Jersey by the time the contract with Los Angeles was signed, and he was called back to California.

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“They didn’t tell me until afterward that I was written into the contract,” Ahmann said. His first child was due a few weeks later, and he waited until she was born to get on a plane to the West Coast.

“I shared my cigars with the L.A. election officials,” he laughed.

The next year, IBM got out of the voting business, but Ahmann went on refining the Votomatic for other companies, and founded his own in an office on his Napa cattle ranch in 1978.

Votomatics and other punch-card machines eventually were used by about a third of voters across the country, including those in Florida.

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After the 2000 presidential election fiasco there with Votomatic machines, California election officials ordered counties to eliminate them by March 2004. Conny McCormack, the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder, called Ahmann to help her find a replacement.

“After we got through the shock and denial, we called him for help,” said McCormack, who was leery of moving directly to touch-screen voting and wanted to find an interim solution. “He’s been in the business for 40 years. He’s got a monopoly on this stuff.”

Ahmann, who sold his company in 1986 and is now an elections consultant, said that when McCormack called, he and colleague Dick Stevens already had been discussing retooling voting machines to meet new standards. Because of that call, they came up with Inkavote, which Stevens’ San Diego company produced.

“I don’t know if she was the chicken or the egg, but when she asked if we could build her a new machine, I said, ‘Sure we can!’ ” Ahmann said.

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“I was glad to get back on this and help Conny,” he added.


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