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The Machinery of Democracy, on Display

From the false-bottom ballot boxes of the machine politics era to the early-1900s gear-and-lever machines to butterfly ballots and just about every species of “chad” known to man, a new Smithsonian exhibit tells the story of one of the country’s oldest and most controversial institutions — voting.

Opening Friday at the National Museum of American History, “Vote: The Machinery of Democracy” traces the evolution of voting techniques and suffrage issues in America over the past two centuries, culminating with the 2000 election and subsequent re-evaluations of voting across the country.

“We’ve always tied in the so-called machinery of democracy with the social, cultural and political history,” co-curator Larry Bird said.

Drawing from the museum’s political history collection, the exhibit contains about 40 artifacts, including new acquisitions from the 2000 elections. Though the idea for a voting exhibit had struck him before, Bird said that election motivated him to start compiling artifacts to explore the fundamental issues of voting.

“It’s assumed we have a concept of numbers in a democracy, but it really gets down to the ‘who’ and ‘what,’” Bird said. “Who votes? Who counts? How do you count?”

To help shed light on such questions, visitors will have the opportunity to survey a number of voting techniques that have developed, and in some cases become extinct, over time.

The exhibit will feature several varieties of paper ballots dating back to the 18th century, for a time one of the most historically common methods of voting until the rise of gear-and-lever machines in the late 19th century. Likewise, the 1962 invention of the “Votomatic” — aka the butterfly ballot — later rendered the gear-and-lever method obsolete. Most recently, computerized voting has allowed counties to save space, though Bird cautioned that such systems must be technologically secure since they leave no paper trail.

“Each one of the systems has value to it; each one has kind of an Achilles heel,” Bird said. “Even the best systems can be rendered moot.”

Visitors will have an opportunity to cast ballots using a wooden ballot box, a model gear-and-lever machine or a Datavote punch-card recorder.

In addition to voting techniques, the exhibit will focus on practical concerns such as the fear of fraud during the political machine era, when false-bottom ballot boxes were rampant and glass collection jars afforded voters no privacy in casting their ballots.

“It’s probably no coincidence that the first gear-and-lever machine was invented by a New Yorker,” Bird said, in reference to Jacob Myers, who first demonstrated the machine in 1892 in Lockport, N.Y. “The message here is reformers set out to fight political machines with voting machines.”

The exhibit will also highlight redefinitions of suffrage, from the ratification of the 15th and 19th amendments to the civil rights movement.

“It is important for people to know that the franchise was not universal when we started out as a country,” museum Director Brent Glass said. “I think that’s really one of the goals of the exhibit, to let young audiences know that voting is an essential part of our democracy.”

A large map listing all of the counties in the United States will be on display to reflect what Bird refers to as a “patchwork” of diverse voting methods throughout the country. While some voting regions alter their processes as soon as new technological innovations surface, not all counties choose to change with the times, he added.

“Once people get comfortable or familiar with a system, it’s difficult to change that system,” Bird said. “People go through a period of acclamation in terms of being taught how to use a particular system. There really isn’t anything intuitive about” voting.

In the first election since 2000, when controversy and court battles rendered the contest undecided for weeks, voting methods remain varied throughout the country, though Bird said each county has most likely reassessed its systems.

“We pair the Florida story with the corrective actions that people began to take in the wake of Florida,” he said, noting that, for example, officials in Chicago created special judges to oversee elections. The exhibit will also showcase one of the infamous butterfly ballots used in Palm Beach County, Fla.

“You can see it in pictures, or you can come here and see it,” Bird said.

“Vote” is scheduled to run through Jan. 31, 2005. Visit for more information.

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