At the Smithsonian, Every Votomatic Counts

Times Staff Writer

On a recent afternoon at the Smithsonian, S.R.K. Murthi of Delhi, India, peered past a wall of glass to see the device that, on Nov. 7, 2000, shook the vote.

Perched atop four spindly legs, the Votomatic with the butterfly ballot from Palm Beach County, Fla., looked a little precarious, somewhat flimsy and, above all, obsolete.

Murthi, 65, has seen his share of wild elections in his native country, and he wondered aloud how “the very most advanced country like this” could have had such a messy and prolonged presidential election in 2000.

“We were really surprised,” Murthi said. The United States “is not like a backward country.”


But it is a country with no uniform method of voting.

Americans watching the 2000 election on television saw the U.S. divided into red, or Republican, and blue, or Democratic, states. But the country is also green, purple, orange, pink and yellow, according to an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History called “Vote: The Machinery of Democracy.”

A giant, dizzying map on the floor of the museum explains county by county the ways in which Americans will vote in November: by punching holes, pulling levers, pushing buttons or something more old-fashioned, like slipping paper ballots into a box. Each color represents a different voting method.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit -- which runs beyond Inauguration Day -- traces the evolution of this country’s voting technology and displays about 40 items of paraphernalia, from early 19th century paper ballots to the Votomatic vote-counting machine from 2000.


The timing is certainly right. The 2000 Florida recount is still on the minds of many, and polls show Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush in a tight race.

“There’s a standard prayer that all election officials say the night before the election,” said Kimball W. Brace, president of Election Data Services, the Washington political consulting firm that created the floor map for the exhibit, “and that’s ‘Dear Lord, let it be good weather tomorrow, so a lot of people go vote, and please, Lord, let everyone win big.’ And only a couple parts of that prayer were answered in 2000.”

A look at the lower right corner of the exhibit’s floor map yields a sigh of relief: The entire state of Florida has abandoned punch ballots.

But Brace, who has been analyzing voting technology for more than 30 years, warns that another close margin could expose faults somewhere else in the system.


He says counties are slowly phasing out older voting methods, like the gear-and-lever machine invented in the 1890s, which is still used in New York and is on display at the museum. It’s one of the earliest models, a tall hunk of metal weighing nearly 1,000 pounds, with a green wraparound curtain to protect a voter’s privacy.

Paper ballots were standard until the electorate roughly doubled at the turn of the 20th century and counting votes by hand became unwieldy.

The lever machines in use these days work much like the originals. Election Data Services, which has been compiling information on voting equipment since 1980, expects 22 million voters to cast their votes by flipping levers over the names of their chosen candidates on Nov. 2.

More than twice that number will vote using electronic equipment. Many states are trying to replace lever and punch-card machines with funds from the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002.


But at least one man, William L. Bird Jr., the exhibit’s curator, will mourn the passing of the lever machine.

“When you closed that curtain, it was impossible to over-vote. Then, when you opened that curtain, the machine gave a certain ker-chunk,” said Bird, whose first ballot was cast by flipping a lever in Maryland. “You felt that you had voted.”

Cheaper punch-card systems emerged in the 1960s and optical scanning -- in which a computer, rather than a person, counted paper ballots -- became popular in the 1970s. Now, most voters use electronic voting systems that are like automated teller machines. These are moving elections toward a paperless process, although not without controversy.

“The main thing about machines is that every single one of them has pluses and every single one of them has minuses,” Brace said. “The big issue for election administrators is to make sure those minuses don’t come back to bite you.”


Californians will no longer be using punch cards with chads like those used in Florida in 2000. Instead, according to Election Data Services, 13 counties, comprising 39.99% of the state’s registered voters, are expected to use an electronic system this November. Another 33 counties, or 54.4% of voters, will be using an optical scan device, comparable to taking the SATs or any other standardized test. The remaining 12 counties are using a version of the punch card called Datavote that is different from the kind used in Florida and, according to Brace, much less prone to error.

The Florida butterfly ballot from 2000 is now just another cultural artifact, housed in the same museum as Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But for EddyGilbert Herch of New York, the memories of the Florida recount remained fresh as he looked at the Palm Beach County Votomatic.

“Just look at this thing!” said Herch. “Just having this thing in front of me, I realize that’s a major horror.”


Herch, 50, is an executive producer of “Everywhere but Florida,” a documentary on the controversial 2000 vote and election reform. After seeing the exhibit’s parade of archaic voting devices, Herch isn’t so sure the system has come a long way after all.

“They’re not much wackier than the machines for this year,” he said. “We still haven’t perfected a way for voting.”