June 26, 1968: Town attempts punch-card ballots and computer tabulation in 1968 elections

The town of Arlington, MA attempted to bring computers into their election process. A bug in a computer program for vote tabulation resulted in a return to hand counting.

"Town Rejects Computer Voting, Prefers Ballots" published in Computerworld Volume 2, Issue 26 on June 26, 1968
“Town Rejects Computer Voting, Prefers Ballots” published in Computerworld Volume 2, Issue 26 on June 26, 1968

Today, the two most common voting technologies are computer-powered: optical-scan ballots in which voters make marks on paper ballots that are read by machine, and touch screens devices in which votes are directly recorded in computer memory. 

In 1968, the town of Arlington, MA attempted to use punch card ballots and computer tabulation to speed up their election process. The punch card ballots had partially perforated holes which a voter would punch out with a stylus to indicate their selection. Then, the punch cards would be run through a computer to be tabulated. In theory, the system promised to be faster than hand-counting ballots, but in practice, issues made the system take over five times as long as a regular paper ballot election. In the April presidential primary, a bug in the IBM 360 computer tabulation code resulted in over 80 percent of the ballots being rejected from the computer, requiring hand-counting and incurring an additional $5000 in costs for the town.

Arlington town officials and residents were interviewed about their experiences for an article in Computerworld magazine. After the presidential primary, a local official was quoted in Computerworld saying that it was “a lot of baloney” that computers could be used to speed election results. Meanwhile, representatives from the local League of Women Voters said that they liked the system, but recognized that many residents were resistant to changing their ways.

The town made a return to paper ballots and hand counting in their subsequent elections.

–By Kathleen Esfahany