Voting Technology: What Physically Happens to Your Vote and Why It Matters

November 4th 2014

Julian Ramis

Pamela Smith is the president of Verified Voting, a non-partisan non-profit that works to safeguard elections in our increasingly digitized world. Smith is an expert in voting technologies from paper ballots to touch screens, and has provided testimony on voting issues at state and federal levels across the US and, in her downtime, oversees a database on election equipment and the regulations governing its use at the federal level across all 50 states. In other words, Pamela is a big deal in the world of voting technology, and we were lucky enough to catch up with her to gain some insight into this unsung industry that makes our democracy possible. 

Q: What is the current state of voting technology in the U.S.? How does our system compare to those used in the EU and South America? 

Elections in the US are run locally – often at the town or county level – and decisions about what voting systems to use are often made at that local election jurisdiction as well, while other countries may be more likely to select a single voting system for use in the entire nation. Many other countries use paper ballots counted by hand; some use electronic equipment, and some have tried electronic equipment and actually rejected it and gone back to hand counts. It varies quite a bit. Keep in mind that we typically vote on many more ballot items or contests than in other countries, where they may have a single vote to cast in a given election, which makes our elections a lot more complex.

The US predominantly votes on hand-marked paper ballots counted by electronic scanners, while a smaller but still sizeable number of voters will vote on “direct recording electronic” voting machines – i.e. they mark their vote choices using an electronic interface, such as a touch-screen, and that same machine will count the votes as well. And some voters will use an electronic interface for marking their choices but it will print out a ballot for counting by an electronic scanner; those are known as ballot marking devices, and they have features that make voting easier for some individuals with disabilities.

Q: I was really surprised to learn that nearly 70% of voters will vote on paper ballots today? Why is a society as technologically advanced as ours still reliant on paper? 

Don’t be surprised! Paper’s a good thing. It’s still around and widely used because it really serves the purpose. Paper ballots seem low-tech, to be sure, but the goal here is to be able to correctly capture the intent of the voter, and to have a credible, reliable evidence trail for assuring the correct outcome. And, you want something that will allow voters to vote even if some equipment breaks down.

So most jurisdictions combine the best of “old school” with newer technology combine in those paper ballot jurisdictions, where you get the ease of use and resilience of a paper ballot and a speedy initial count on election night. And, if for any reason the scanner didn’t count correctly, you can find out and solve for that problem, no matter what the cause, because you have the actual ballots.

If this is all happening in bits and bytes in a machine, and something goes wrong with the workings of the machine, you don’t have the evidence you need to confirm the correct winner.  And in a machine jurisdiction, you need emergency paper ballots so that voters can vote in case the machines break down. But in a paper jurisdiction, even if the scanner doesn’t work, voters can still mark ballots and they can be stored securely to be counted later when the scanner IS working. So you tend not to get long lines with paper ballots. (There are exceptions of course! Florida’s seven page ballot from 2012 comes to mind… but a seven page ballot will take a long time no matter what technology you use.)

Q: Can you describe the life of a single paper ballot in today's election? 

After being printed by a special ballot printer, the ballot goes from the town or county elections office to the polling place early election morning. Poll workers select the right ballot style for the voter who checks in, and the ballot then goes into the voter’s hands for voting, then is inserted into a scanner. At the scanner, the ballot may be rejected if the voter accidentally made too many choices for senator, say, or for one of the other contests on the ballot – that gives the voter a second chance, to correct their choices and make sure it all counts. When the ballot is read by the scanner, votes are recognized by the scanning technology, and as the vote count increments, the ballot drops into the locked container below the scanner, where it is stored until its return to the elections office. At the end of the night, poll workers can run the totals on the scanner and post a vote count at the polling place door. All the scanners and ballot boxes will be collected and the vote counts from all the polling places will be compiled into a grand total for the town or county. That ballot is then stored, to be brought out of storage for a recount if there is one, or for a post-election audit (about half the states do post-election audits in the days following the election – it’s a good thing, and we would like to see all states do them!).

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the companies that supply America with its voting technology? How do their incentives match up with the interests of the American Public? 

The number of voting system vendors has been shrinking over the past decade, as some have consolidated and some kinds of technology have been abandoned (punch-cards, lever machines, older push-button DREs). What’s important to note is that despite the fact that elections are public, and run by local governments (county and town clerks and state election officials), the voting machine vendors are private. Most of what they proffer is considered “proprietary” and maintenance is often conducted by the vendors themselves. In other words, our elections are increasingly outsourced.

One trend in the other direction can be found in two forward-thinking jurisdictions: Travis County (Texas) and Los Angeles County (California). Both those counties have election officials who are coming up with entirely new voting systems that are intended to be open-source. They’re actually designing the concepts or specifications, rather than going to the traditional voting system ‘marketplace’ to just choose from available styles, because they were not satisfied with what was available to them.  We anticipate seeing more projects like those in the future, and if these two work out well, it’s likely other jurisdictions will follow suit.

The most important bottom line: the American public has the right to as much transparency as possible in elections processes – it’s our democracy after all.

Q: Why should young people care about voting technology? And how can we help to ensure that we are using the technology that serves us best? 

Most voters, young or old, vote because they feel strongly enough about the issues to show up and make their voices known, and because they know it matters. And it’s not usually a quibble about the technology that makes non-voters fail to show up. Motivation is everything. That said, if you DO show up, it’s crucial that the voting technology not fail to serve you when you get there. What’s most important is that the system we use be resilient and be available. Even in a power failure, you can still mark a paper ballot. For now, it’s the best choice.

But young voters especially should care about the use of technology in elections generally. Elections are mostly about voting, to be sure, but there are many steps to getting there, and technology can really smooth the path. Online look-up tools to find out if you are registered, to update your registration or to actually register, online voter-information to find out about the candidates and propositions you’ll be voting on, smartphone apps to help you find your polling place (try the free Election Protection app!), tracking tools for absentee ballots to make sure they make it back to the election office, etc. All of these are great ways to use technology to make the whole process of voting easier and more familiar, especially to first time voters.

Verified Voting offers a map of the country where you can find out more about what voting technology you’ll see on Election Day everywhere in the nation, county by county. And remember that the one way to be sure your vote won’t count is not to show up – Go vote! And if you have any issues on Election Day, use the EP App or call 1-866-OUR VOTE to get help.