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Voting machine

November 2, 2004

A public radio commentary

At the same time as Americans go to the polls, Australians head to the horse races. The first Tuesday of every November they watch the Melbourne Cup, betting 100 million dollars on its outcome. It's too cynical to think of our elections as a "crap shot" like a bet in a horse race, yet the two events have much in common. It was a voting machine that made both activities as honest and above board as possible. The story begins in Australia with an engineer named George Julius.

Julius inherited from his father, an Anglican Archbishop and a fiery, anti-gambling crusader, a bent for tinkering. He learned from a friend of voter fraud with paper ballots. So, Julius tinkered until he'd invented a voting machine that allowed no vote rigging. Proudly he submitted it to the Commonwealth Government. This tamper-proof machine, of course, scared politicians and so they rejected it.

Soon after this a friend took Julius to the race track, a place he'd never been before. He saw something called the "jam tin tote." A metal can where bookies placed paper bets. At the end of the race an army of clerks had to tally all bets - at some tracks there could be a hundred thousand - and then distribute the winnings in proportion to the wagers. Julius realized his rejected voting machine could speed up this whole process. So by 1913 he'd changed his voting machine into a totalizator, nicknamed "the tote", which counted all the bets.

Most track owners thought this new machine would soon disappear because the first one seemed entirely too cumbersome: The machine occupied a whole room, filling it with a tangle of piano wires and pulleys to move its various wheels and gears. Yet by 1970 with few exceptions, every major racing center in the world used these Australian Totalizators. The last one being decommissioned in 1987 when a dog-racing track in North London replaced it with, of course, a computer.

Although computers are taking over the world, let's take a moment to celebrate George Julius's modified voting machine that helped make gambling popular around the world as a government-approved, legal pastime. And also keep in mind that although its mechanical relative, the voting machine, gets bad press nowadays, it did help clean up and standardize elections. If only, though, it could make voting as popular as Julius's totalizator made gambling.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises