Punch Card Voting Device | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Punch Card Voting Device

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Punch Card Voting Device | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargePunch card voting device

Punch card voting device

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2006.24.1

EnlargePunch ballot and sleeve

Punch ballot and sleeve

Punch ballot (left) and sleeve from voting machine. The ballot slips into the top of the machine, and as each page of candidates is turned, a new vertical column is exposed for punching. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2006.24.2a-b

EnlargeProblematic chads.

Problematic chads

Detailed image of problematic chads caused by an incomplete punch from the stylus. The bottom-most rectangle is completely punched out and can be correctly tabulated by machine, but "hanging chads" as seen above, as well as "pregnant" or "dimpled”"chads, terms made famous by the 2000  presidential election, could not.  In the event of a recount, ballot cards would have to be reviewed manually to try to assess a voter's actual intention. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #2006.24.1

Votomatic punch card voting device used in Walworth County, Wisconsin, until 2000.
(Museum object #2006.24.1)

This Votomatic punch card voting device was last used in used in the City of Delavan, Walworth County, Wisconsin on election day, November 7, 2000. In that election, voters used this device to vote either straight party or to select individually between candidates in several races including President/Vice President, U.S. Senator, Representative in Congress, and Representative to the State Assembly, as well as two referenda.

This type of handheld, clipboard-sized voting device, on which the voter used a stylus to punch holes through a paper card, was invented in 1964. After voters had punched the cards, they were sent to mechanical card counting machines at a central facility, which would then tabulate the results. Walworth County first issued these devices to its voting precincts in the 1980s.

On the Votomatic type of punch card system, punch card ballots were printed only with numbered boxes corresponding to spaces where holes could be punched. A booklet attached to the device itself contained the candidates’ names and ballot questions. Booklet positions lined up with appropriate spots on the punch card ballot inserted into a slot at the top of the device. Unlike other contemporary devices like the Datavote, which had the candidate names and referendum questions printed directly on the ballot next to the punch slots, ballot cards or booklets in the Votomatic device could be potentially misaligned, resulting in the voter unknowingly casting an unintended vote.

While many parts of the nation had abandoned this type of punch card technology by 1997, most polling places in Walworth County continued to use it, although some had begun using other paper and optical technologies. In 1998 the county started an effort to encourage municipalities to end the use of punch cards altogether, but lean municipal budgets proved a major roadblock. The County Board eventually voted to foot the bill for new optical scan machines to achieve more consistent balloting county-wide, but most Walworth County polling places still employed the punch card devices in the presidential election of 2000. On November 7, 2000, about 7 percent of Wisconsin voters, in 51 municipalities in Green, St. Croix, and Walworth counties, voted using punch cards.

During that same 2000 election, the reliability of punch cards became the subject of national controversy, as problems in ballot design in Florida resulted in recounts of "hanging chads", or incomplete punches, made in ballots which proved pivotal in a close race for president. As inspectors in Florida manually recounted punched ballots, reporters discovered that Walworth County was one of the last holdouts for punch cards elsewhere in the nation, and the Walworth County Clerk's office briefly became a center of national media attention.

One potential anomaly that came to light was that 3.4% of those who voted in Walworth County on November 7, 2000 did not cast a vote for president – the third highest percentage in the state. Walworth County Clerk Kimberly Bushey attributed a portion of that county's 1,437 ballots without a presidential vote to errors associated with punch cards. Bushey told the "Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel" that "this is our last election on punch cards. The reason we are switching is that with optical scanning voters get a second chance." In optical scan systems, computers detect voters' marks in circles, ovals, rectangles, or arrows on printed ballots, and on-site tabulating machines identify certain types of errors on the spot, allowing voters another opportunity to fill in a ballot correctly. Walworth County finally received its new optical scanning system machines a week after the November 7, 2000 election and first used them in the primary election on February 20, 2001.

Within weeks after the 2000 election, the Wisconsin Elections Board voted unanimously to revoke its approval of punch card voting as of December 31, 2001, stating that "the use of punch card voting systems undermines the confidence of voters and candidates in the integrity of the tabulation of votes in Wisconsin elections." By the end of 2000, St. Croix County had begun auctioning off its punch card devices on the Internet. Green County was the last Wisconsin county to abandon the punch card system. While Walworth County quit using punch cards in 2000, it did not surplus its punch card devices until 2005, selling a number of them to interested takers for $10 each. The County Clerk's office donated this device to the Wisconsin Historical Society at that time.


Posted on November 02, 2006