From voice to ‘Australian ballot’, here’s how Americans have voted throughout history

Mildred Europa Taylor October 13, 2020
Photo via Obama White House Archives

It’s still more than three weeks from Election Day in the U.S., and voters have already cast a total of 9,055,052 ballots as of Saturday in the 30 states that have provided data. Americans will be heading to the polls this November to decide whether Donald Trump remains in the White House for another four years.

Amid the heated campaigns have been Trump’s voter fraud allegations and other voter suppression claims. Following these controversies, half of Americans think there will be difficulties in casting a ballot, as the country also battles the coronavirus pandemic.

But, of course, this is not the first time that voting in America is being fraught with disagreements; there have been election-related issues throughout the many voting methods that have evolved over the years. Here are the many ways Americans have voted:


Known as “viva voce” or voice voting, those with the right to vote (only white men at the time) in some parts of the U.S. in the early 1800s went to the local courthouse and called out their votes aloud. Generally, voters who show up at the courthouse would have to swear on a Bible that they had not already voted and to confirm that they were who they were. After they are sworn in, they would call out their names to the election clerk and make it known whom they are voting for in each race. The clerk would then write them down on the voter roll while keeping count of them.

Paper Ballots

In the 1800s while some people (largely all men) were still voting with their voices, others were just writing down their favorite candidates’ names on scraps of paper before dropping them into the ballot box. These paper ballots, or party tickets, were not printed by government elections officials but rather by political parties. The voter was free to strike names and squeeze in handwritten names if they wanted, according to the University of Iowa computer science expert Douglas Jones. Often, people could see who you were voting for with the use of the party tickets as they had pictures and were sometimes colored.

Mail-in absentee ballots

The mail-in ballot was widely used during the Civil War, giving many soldiers who were engaged in battle far from home the chance to cast their vote in the 1862 and 1864 elections. The Democrats were however against the mail-in ballot while the Republicans were all for it knowing that these soldiers were going to vote Republican, according to researchers.

The Australian Ballot

Amid accusations of voter fraud associated with partisan paper ballots in the mid-1800s came the ‘Australian style’ ballot in 1858 which had candidates for each party listed. Here, ballots were printed by election officials, unlike the partisan paper ballots. New York and Massachusetts were the first to adopt the Australia paper ballot in 1888, handing them over to voters at a polling center.

Voting machine

America, from 1910 through 1980, used the lever-operated voting machine invented by Jacob H. Myers for its elections. Weighing hundreds of pounds, these machines were installed in the corner of the local town hall for many years. “Voting on one of these lever machines was easy,” according to History. “Each candidate for each race had a small lever next to his or her name and Americans voted by pulling down the levers of their chosen candidates. If they wanted to vote along a single party line, they could pull one lever that automatically selected the Republican or Democratic candidates.”

Though many Americans threw their weights behind these voting machines, concerns were later raised about how complex the vote-counting process was. Technicians, instead of local election officials, also gained the upper hand in the whole voting process.

Punch cards

From the 1960s, ballots could be counted by computers after a voter has punched a hole in the cardboard ballot relating to their choice of candidate. But there were flaws with the system, as evident in the 2000 presidential election where reports said some cards were left with only partially punched holes, otherwise called hanging chads.

Optical scanning machines

Ballots scanned by a computer have become the most common method of voting in America. With this method, voters “fill in bubbles, complete arrows or make other machine-readable marks on paper ballots,” according to Pew Research Center. Basically, optical scanning machines replaced punch cards and lever machines of many states.

Electronic voting machines

In the early 2000s, Americans were selecting their votes on a computer screen. Only a few of these electronic voting machines gave voters a print-out at the time though recent ones allow voters to print out a completed ballot, which they can check and later place in a scanner to be counted.

Mail-in ballots

In states like Washington or Colorado, those registered to vote are sent a ballot. After voting, they “can either walk the ballot in and hand it in or just stick it in the mail,” Dan Inbody, who teaches political science at Texas State University, told ABC News. And amid the coronavirus pandemic, this method of voting has come in handy for many people.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 13, 2020


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates