The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.
If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org to share your memory or get an answer to your question.
By Karen E. Livsey
Jimmy Walker, Mayor of New York City, is about to vote on an AVM machine in October 1930. Note the light bulb by his hand. A lantern hook was in the same place.
As Election Day approaches there are probably a number of us who will pause and remember our old voting machines. The mechanical-lever machine manufactured right here in Jamestown. An early name for the company was the Automatic Registering Machine Company. In 1925, it became known as Automatic Voting Machine Company. As ownership changed over the years the name became shortened to AVM Company or Division as it became a part of a larger corporation. The last Automatic Voting Machine came off the assembly line 30 years ago in November 1982.
The voting machine was allowed for voting in New York state in 1897. Since the mid-1930s, New Yorkers had to use a voting machine for elections. Most places continued to use the mechanical-lever machines until the change was mandated in the past few years. The Automatic Voting Machine manufactured in Jamestown had the largest share of that market. In the 2000 election about 20 percent of the electorate voted on mechanical-lever machines.
The company marketed their voting machines citing among others, the following attributes: makes voting swift and easy, assures complete secrecy, assures complete accuracy, no defective ballots possible, and reduces election costs.
As to the machine itself, the claims were that it was easily packed and stored, sturdily constructed, fully guaranteed and the company provided help and instruction for newly installed machines. One thing that the company did from the beginning was provide instructions and models to educate the public on the use of the machines; after all the early machines were a new technology and a new experience for the voters who were used to using paper ballots.
After experiencing the setup of the older machine in the collection of the Fenton History Center for our 2001 exhibit about the Automatic Voting Machine Company, we questioned the "easily packed and stored" claim but did agree with the "sturdily constructed" claim. One claim that was not made but could be an important consideration today in the light of some pockets of destruction caused by Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy is the fact that no electricity was needed to operate these machines. Early machines even included a hook on which a lantern could be hung to provide illumination for the voter in the booth with the curtain closed. Eventually as seen in the above photograph, the lantern was replaced by a bare electric light bulb hanging from the lantern hook. Later models eliminated the hook as the polling places had sufficient electric lighting.
Here in our area the Automatic Voting Machine was often stored in the corner or in a closet of the polling place which seemed to remain the same from year to year. But in larger cities where more than one or two machines were used in a polling place, the storage and distribution of the machines back to the many polling places proved to be a large and expensive task.
The manufacturing of these voting machines employed a work force of 400 or more men and women during the years in Jamestown. As you go to the polls during this 2012 election you can remember the mechanical-level machine with great fondness while learning a new system of voting in New York state. You could think of this experience as the same type of experience voters of many years ago went through as they learned about the new technology of mechanical-lever voting machines as they "gave up" the paper ballot.
The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County's history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.
Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.
If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.