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Election History Reveals Colorful Past

Thursday, September 23, 2004; 2:25 PM

Activists who oppose the use of electronic voting machines say the devices are a threat to democracy because no one can know whether their votes were really counted, and the technology can be manipulated to change election results. Taking a look at the last 100 years reveals that this is an old problem dressed up in new clothes. Here is a sample from the archives of The Washington Post:

• 1905: Republicans in Garrett County, Md., come up with an effective way to eliminate uncertainty -- and harness the illiterate vote -- in the state Senate election: Hand out stenciled boards that, when lined up on a ballot, have fingers marked on them pointing to the Republican candidates so voters could simply stencil in the name. Not one Republican ballot is tossed, while 150 Democratic ballots are disposed of because they are illegible.

• Early 20th century: Whiskey and cash are the proto-hacker's tools of choice. Republican Rep. Campbell Bascom Slemp of southwestern Virginia's "Fighting Ninth" district from 1907 to 1923, reportedly rides through his district at election time, offering liquor and money from his black satchel in exchange for absentee ballots. The practice, of course, is called "Black Satchelin'."

• July 1947: A preview of the Florida hanging chad debacle: Defeated Republican Senate candidate D. John Markey asks for a recount of 140,000 votes after claiming that paper ballots with any mark other than an "X" -- such as dots and dashes -- be discarded. Attorneys for Markey and elected Sen. Herbert O'Conor (D) inspect 200 to 300 ballots a day, debating points such as whether a light or heavy dot would invalidate the ballot.

• November 1972: Computer malfunctions plague the District during the 1972 presidential election, causing long lines and delays in election results after the computer system omits thousands of voters from the final registration list. Then, high humidity causes computer cards to swell, preventing officials from scanning ballots.

• September 1974: After a week of delays due to computer problems in the Sept. 10 primaries, the D.C. Board of Elections orders that all 85,000 ballots be counted by hand. The citywide recount follows a hand count in Ward 5 that reverses the election result of a disputed council seat. Board Chairman Robert E. Martin says that the Ward 5 contest indicates that "there are serious problems in the machine count as opposed to the closely supervised hand count."

• September 1978: D.C. elections board officials say 7,000 ballots cast in the mayoral election were "unread" by electronic counting machines. The ballots are recounted by hand after precinct workers give blue and red pens to voters to mark their ballots, though the machines only read black or dark pencil marks. The discrepancy does not bother challenger Marion Barry, who claims victory with a 1,400-vote lead over incumbent Walter Washington.

• November 1978: The U.S. Senate race between Democrat Andrew P. Miller and Republican John W. Warner is marred by widespread election day computer foul-ups and human errors. A computer at the News Election Service in New York malfunctions in the middle of the night, throwing into doubt the unofficial election results that show Warner leading by a slim margin of 4,512 votes out of 1.2 million cast. Warner wins, and has been in the Senate ever since.

• November 1982: Back to the Fighting Ninth. Officials delay declaring a winner in the state Senate race between Democrat (and current representative) Rick Boucher and Republican William Wampler after a drunk man walks into one polling place, casts five votes and jams up the voting machine.

-- By Amanda Zamora and Robert MacMillan, washingtonpost.com Staff Writers, with Laura Uhlmansiek contributing.

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