The Gear and Lever Voting Machine
The invention of a practical voting machine was the preoccupation of reformers in the late 19th century. The operating features of these gear-and-lever machines followed contemporary trends in ballot design, notably the tabular layout of the blanket ballot and the private curtained booth. By the 1920s, a market for such machines had developed in the nation's urban centers.
State and local government officials justified investments in voting machines by noting the increasing length and complexity of ballots with multiple candidates and referenda, and the doubling of electorates with the enfranchisement of women.

Map of states and territories in which women vote

The admission of western territories as new states advanced the right of women to vote. These territories had less rigid social customs, and were anxious to acquire the number of voting residents needed to meet statehood requirements. In 1913 women voted in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. Not until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 did women win the right to vote in the United States as a whole.

Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

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Photo of Women practicing voting
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Women practicing voting

A group of women in Chicago practice casting votes in a municipal election by means of a voting machine in 1913. The first year in which all American women could vote was 1920.

Courtesy League of Women Voters

Popular Science Monthly cover

By 1920 the gear-and-lever voting machine had become the official voting method in New York, Minnesota, California, Connecticut, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Utah, Colorado, Montana, Illinois, Washington, Massachusetts, and Kansas. The voting machine, pictured in Popular Science Monthly with a contemplative voter, became a symbol of good government and progressive reform.

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Photo of Standard voting machine
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Standard voting machine

This voting machine was patented by inventor Alfred J. Gillespie and manufactured by the Standard Voting Machine Company of Rochester, New York, in the late 1890s. It was the first to use a voter-activated mechanism that drew a privacy curtain around the voter and simultaneously unlocked the machine's levers for voting. In 1898, Gillespie and inventor Jacob Myers, whose patents informed Gillespie's work, organized a company that became Automatic Voting Machine Company. Myers gave the first demonstration of a voting machine in an 1892 Lockport, New York, town election.

Automatic Voting Machine brochure

From 1898 through the early 1960s, the gear-and-lever voting machine was promoted as an ideal voting technology. Though its internal mechanism changed over the years, the machine's "three steps to vote" never changed:

  • Pull the handle to close the curtains of the booth.
  • Turn the voting levers over the names of your chosen candidates to expose the Xs.
  • Pull the handle back to register your vote and reopen the curtains.
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Photo of Instructional model voting machine
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Instructional model voting machine

Models like this one acquainted voters with the operational features of the actual machine. This facsimile machine was last used in the 1944 presidential election between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey.

Voting Machine booklet

The American Voting Machine Company's sales literature carried this idealized picture of the poll-going electorate in 1948.

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Wendell Willkie novelty ballot

Republican Party sample ballot with movable levers, 1940

New Yorker magazine cover

In this New Yorker magazine cover from 1956, election officials tally votes registered on the counters visible on the back of a gear-and-lever voting machine. These machines were last manufactured in 1985 and remain in statewide use in Louisiana and New York. They are being phased out under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provides aid to states to acquire new voting equipment.

Courtesy The New Yorker

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Photo of John F. Kennedy handbill
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John F. Kennedy handbill

In the election of 1960, half of the estimated 65 million ballots were cast on gear-and-lever voting machines. This novelty handbill urges voters to pull the lever for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.

Gear-and-lever poster

Poster used to familiarize voters with the gear-and-lever ballot format in Philadelphia, 1972

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Ronald Reagan handbill

This sample ballot for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan was distributed to New York voters in 1980.