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March 7: Legislature’s Voting System

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For decades, North Dakota’s Legislature had only one way to vote on bills: roll calls of the many lawmakers. That time-consuming method changed with the installation of an electric voting machine in 1947.

Two tally boards were installed in the House of Representatives for the 1947 session, costing over $38,000. The system had 22 miles of wire! Lawmakers voted yea or nay with a two-way switch at their desk, with the tally boards showing how everyone voted. To count the votes, the speaker’s rostrum included a recording machine, similar to a cash register.

The Bismarck Tribune said getting rid of roll calls could save at least three hours a day, the equivalent of 15 eight-hour days over a 60-day session. After the session, the North Dakota House speaker thanked the Minnesota legislature for being a leader in the use of automatic voting.

During that same 1947 session, the Legislature budgeted $25,000 to install an electric voting system for the Senate. Workers installed it in 1948.

On this date in 1949, a Tribune columnist remarked upon a father who brought his young daughter to the House to watch lawmakers vote. She was fascinated by the tally boards’ green and red lights that indicated the lawmakers’ votes. She wondered, “why don’t they have yellow lights for those who can’t make up their minds?”

By 1950, 17 state legislatures had push-button voting systems in one or both of their houses, according to the Council of State Governments.

In 1953 the House voting system broke down with many bills awaiting final action. But rather than return to tedious roll calls for 113 lawmakers on more than 50 bills, the House chose to recess and await repairs.

Over the years, North Dakota’s Legislature continued to evolve. One big change was the transition from hefty bill books to computers for following all the legislation. And videoconference and remote voting installed during the coronavirus pandemic made it possible for lawmakers to remotely attend committee meetings and floor sessions. It’s all a far cry from the days of hours-long, in-person roll calls.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • Mandan Daily Pioneer. 1945, February 12. Page 5: Lions are told legislation could be speeded
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1947, January 2. Page 2: A flip of the wrist and a vote is cast
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1947, February 15. Page 1: Inventor explains House voting system
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1947, March 15. Page 3: N.D. speaker thanks Minnesota lawmakers
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1948, September 24. Page 3: Skeels installing Senate voting machine
  • Mandan Pioneer. 1948, October 7. Page 6: Eddietorials
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1948, November 15. Page 1: Browsing around with Allan Eastman; Almost ready
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1949, March 7. Page 1: Browsing Around; Good idea
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1953, March 4. Page 1: Broken voting machine stops House action
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 2021, January 4. Pages A1, A9: Legislature convenes with new look amid COVID-19

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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