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Punchcard systems employ a card (or cards) and a small clipboard-sized device for recording votes. Voters punch holes in the cards (with a supplied punch device) opposite their candidate or ballot issue choice. After voting, the voter may place the ballot in a ballot box, or the ballot may be fed into a computer vote tabulating device at the precinct.

Two common types of punchcards are the "Votomatic" card and the "Datavote" card. With the Votomatic card, the locations at which holes may be punched to indicate votes are each assigned numbers. The number of the hole is the only information printed on the card. The list of candidates or ballot issue choices and directions for punching the corresponding holes are printed in a separate booklet. (Today’s "Votomatic" cards are the direct descendents of the original punchcard developed from a concept introduced by political scientist and former government administrator Dr. Joseph P. Harris) With the Datavote card, the name of the candidate or description of the issue choice is printed on the ballot next to the location of the hole to be punched.

Fulton and De Kalb Counties in Georgia were the first jurisdictions to use punchcards and computer tally machines when they adopted the system for the 1964 primary election. In the November 1964 Presidential election, these two jurisdictions were joined by Lane County, Oregon, and San Joaquin and Monterey Counties in California, who also adopted the punchcard system.

Although many jurisdictions are now switching from punchcard systems to more advanced Marksense or DRE systems, Los Angeles County, the Nation’s largest election jurisdiction with 3.8 million registered voters, continues to rely on their punchcard voting system. In the 1996 Presidential election, some variation of the punchcard system was used by 37.3% of registered voters in the United States.