Punch card ballots and the 1966 Georgia gubernatorial election.

During the summer of 1966, CBS News, in a joint venture with the polling firm Louis Harris & Associates and IBM, launched one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken to forecast national elections on a state-by-state basis. CBS hoped to scoop the other networks on election night by being first to call the winner in every race for Governor or Senator across the country and, if the experiment was successful, to apply the methodology to the 1968 presidential elections.

In each state holding a senatorial or gubernatorial election, Harris selected a “representative” sample of voting precincts--some 5,700 nationwide. In each selected precinct, CBS hired a local resident, preferably someone known to--or even a relative of--an election official, and supplied him or her with credentials as a CBS News correspondent for one night to cover the counting of the ballots and call in the results as soon as they were announced. Operators in New York would feed their tallies into an IBM mainframe computer programmed to project the winner based on the returns from the sample precincts.

The CBS effort was mostly successful. The only failure was in the Maryland Governor's race, where a little-known Republican county executive named Spiro Agnew, with the support of many liberal Democrats, had defeated George Mahoney, a perennial candidate who ran under the racially charged slogan “Your Home is Your Castle.”

But most of the media attention that year was focused on the race for Governor of Georgia, where the Democratic candidate was Lester Maddox, famous for handing out pickax handles to fight integration at his restaurant, then closing it rather than allow it to be desegregated. Maddox had defeated Jimmy Carter and former governor Ellis Arnall in a bitter primary to face Republican Howard “Bo” Calloway in the general election. The race was considered close from the start, but it became utterly unpredictable when Arnall, who detested Maddox and everything he stood for, launched an independent write-in campaign in an attempt to stop him.

Calloway’s support was strongest in the suburbs of Atlanta, particularly in DeKalb County, where a new computerized voting system from IBM was being used for the first time. The Votomatic used pre-perforated Hollerith cards placed into a flip-over template displaying the names of the candidates next to holes through which a voter would push a stylus to record his or her vote. Unlike voting machines and paper ballots, which can be read and tallied on the spot as soon as the polls close, the punch cards had to be collected from all the precincts and taken to a central mainframe computer to be tabulated.

After the polls closed in the 1966 election, DeKalb County Sheriff's deputies dutifully gathered up the ballots, sealed them in heavy burlap bags and tossed them into their pickup trucks to be taken to the county courthouse. The deputies had no doubt been thoroughly instructed not to fold, spindle or mutilate the ballots, but it seems that no one had thought to warn them about the effects of moisture on punch cards.

As it happened, there was a heavy rain in the Atlanta area that evening, and many of the bags containing the ballots were soaked through by the time they reached their destination. It would be days before the last of the punch cards was dry enough to be fed into the computer, and so no results from DeKalb County were included in the projections when CBS News called Lester Maddox the winner in Georgia that night.

Calloway did well in DeKalb County, and the heavy turnout there ended up putting him ahead of Maddox by just over 3,000 votes, out of nearly a million cast statewide. But Ellis Arnall’s write-in effort had captured over 5% of the vote, and as a result, Calloway received only 46.5% of the total vote to Maddox's 46.2%. Georgia law required an absolute majority of the votes cast to win the election, and so the matter was sent to the Georgia House of Representatives, which was overwhelmingly Democratic.

When, as expected, the state legislators declared Lester Maddox the winner some weeks later, CBS newsman Harry Reasoner quipped that the Georgia House of Representatives had once again made an honest man of Walter Cronkite.

A direct consequence of the missed calls in Maryland and Georgia was that CBS fired Louis Harris and established a permanent unit within the News Division to handle election forecasting, hiring a sampling expert named Warren Mitofsky from the Bureau of the Census to run it. Under his direction, the CBS Election Unit contributed many major advances in survey research over the next 30 years, including the exit poll.

The Votomatic system was reasonably successful and adopted in many jurisdictions, but after it featured in scandals over alleged vote rigging in California in 1969, IBM decided that the election business would be an endless source of problems and sold the division to a group of management employees. There have been many well-documented complaints about problems with punch card voting systems since then, but these never had high visibility and were mostly ignored in the national press until the problems in Florida uring the 2000 presidential election.