NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: The Myers Automatic Voting Booth

COURTESY NIAGARA HISTORY CENTERThis image is from the 1889 patent that Jacob Myer submitted for his voting machine. 

This past Tuesday was Primary Election Day in New York state. Very few voters realize that the first mechanical voting machine made its debut in a Town of Lockport election on April 12, 1892. Known as the Myers Ballot Machine or the Automatic Voting Booth, it was invented in 1889 by a Rochester safe maker, Jacob H. Myers, and was the forerunner of the lever machines.

The Myers Automatic Voting Booth looked much like a walk-in safe. Described in the Buffalo Courier on April 14, 1892, as “a steel structure … measuring seven feet high and about six feet square. It is securely closed all over, and the interior may be lighted by means of a lamp or gas jet.” To use this machine, a voter would enter a door at one end of the booth that would securely lock behind him. Once inside, there was a panel with three color-coded columns, one for each party represented, with the candidates’ names listed underneath and a “knob” below each name. The knob would be pressed in to vote for that candidate. The three parties in this Town of Lockport election were Republican, Democrat and Prohibitionist. When the voter finished making his choice, he would exit through another door, but this was not the exit. Once that door was completely shut and automatically locked, the true exit door could be opened. Only when that door was shut, and again automatically locked, would the voter’s choices be tallied in the machine. A bell would then ring, notifying the election attendant at the entrance door that another voter could enter.

Although it sounds rather complicated, it actually worked quite efficiently and was praised by voters, elections officials, candidates and newspaper reporters. It took a voter an average of 12 seconds to choose their candidates. The poll opened at 8:45 a.m. and closed precisely at 6:38 p.m. (why that particular time was chosen was not recorded). For this election, 64 candidates were on the ballot over the three parties for a variety of offices including Town Supervisor. After the poll closed, the back of the machine was opened and the votes tallied.

“Each knob has operated as a counter similar to what is used on printing presses, and the count stands out in bold figures on the dial-plate over each name,” explained the Buffalo Courier. The count was visible to everyone present and “inside of 10 minutes the whole result was public property.” The figure of 440 voters matched up exactly with the number recorded by the election inspectors, which did not always happen in paper ballot elections.

The next day, the Lockport Town Board issued a statement advocating the Myers Ballot Machine, declaring “the voters of the town as well as every member of this board are delighted with the Myers system … all seemed to be loud in their praise regarding its simplicity, economy, and efficiency … It should be adopted for all elections.”

After this endorsement, several municipalities, including Niagara County, purchased the new voting machines over the next few years.

Of course there were those who found fault with the new machine. Cost was definitely a factor. Prices reported in the newspapers for one voting booth varied widely, from $300 to $600, but it was pointed out that in the long run, the savings on paper and manpower would pay for the machine in a few years. Some just didn’t like new technology. From the Niagara Falls Cataract (1894): “the county will be inflicted with another ‘machine.’ We thought there were machines enough.”

By the mid 1890s, glitches with Myers voting machines were being reported. From the Buffalo Evening News (1893): “It has been decided by the town of Porter Board to keep the Myers ballot machine for another spring on trial. The machine did not work satisfactorily last spring.” Reported from Wheatfield (1895): “192 men entered the cabinet … [but] a total of 200, or 8 more than the number of voters” was tallied. From the Lockport Journal (1896): “The Myers ballot machine is evidently not proving a success … [it is] unfitted for the purposes for which it is intended.”

Myers worked to improve his machines but there were problems in Rochester during the 1896 presidential election and he left the company on an extended trip with his son. During his absence, the company relocated to Jamestown and changed its name to the United States Voting Machine Co. Another business, the Standard Voting Machine Co., opened in Rochester in 1898, then moved to Jamestown two years later. The two companies merged in 1900 to form the United States Standard Voting Machine Co. Upon his return, Myer worked for a short time at this company and in 1901 negotiated the sale of a new voting machine to the Lockport Town Board for $500. It was described in the Lockport Journal as “the new modern steel U.S. Standard machine … a wonderful improvement” upon the previous one.

In 1918, the City of Lockport purchased its first automatic voting machines from an unnamed company in Boston, Mass., but they “acted up badly” and were “anything but satisfactory.” A year later, the city paid $16,029 for “20 U.S.S. 9 Party Voting Machines” from the Automatic Registering Machine Corporation, also located in Jamestown.

By the 1920s, the three cities and most of the towns in the county had switched over to the new lever voting machines. The last towns in the county to purchase the lever machines were Cambria and Somerset, which began using them in 1937.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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