Voting machines have an integral role in ensuring the integrity of elections, and thus of protecting democracy. It's important that voting machines are doing what they are designed to do: Record citizens’ votes in a secure and accurate way. Voters must be confident their votes are being recorded as cast, that their privacy is being protected, and that the machine is tamper-proof. To provide this level of confidence, voting machines are tested against standards before being used in an election.
Those standards vary from state to state. Some states adopt federal standards, some develop their own standards and others use a hybrid of both approaches. See which states use federal standards and certification below.
What Voting Equipment Is Used Nationwide?
After the 2000 presidential election and the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), most election jurisdictions in the country replaced older mechanical lever voting machines and punch card voting systems with one of two kinds of systems: Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines or optical scan paper ballot systems. A few small jurisdictions hand count paper ballots as well.
DREs use a touchscreen, dial or push button to directly record votes into the computer memory. Some DREs contain a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) printer that allows voters to review their selections on a separate paper record before casting the ballot.
Optical scan machines count paper ballots either at the polling place—a precinct count—or at a central location—a central count. A voter fills in an oval, completes an arrow or fills in a box on a paper ballot, much like standardized tests. Paper ballots are then tabulated using the optical scanner.
What Do Voting System Standards Address?
Each state sets its specific standards for voting systems in statute and/or administrative rule. These can be based on the voluntary standards set by the EAC, or not. The most common issues that voting system standards are likely to address are: security, functionality, privacy, usability, and accessibility.
A “secure” voting machine means one that cannot be tampered with or manipulated. Security begins with requiring that systems accurately record votes as cast. Although requirements vary from state to state, other aspects of security that may be addressed include:
- Physical security of the equipment and ballots: Procedures that ensure that additional votes cannot be cast after the polls have closed or tampered with at any stage of the process, and that there is an auditable “chain of custody.”
- Auditability: The capability of a machine to maintain an audit record that can be reviewed post-election.
- Internet connection: Ensuring a machine cannot be connected to the Internet or networked during the voting period to avoid the potential for hacking.
Standards may also address specific functionality that a voting machine should have. Functionality might include:
- Correctly registering and recording all votes cast.
- Permitting the voter to vote for any person, office or measure for which he or she has the right to vote.
- Permitting a voter to review his or her votes before casting them, and providing the opportunity to change or correct the ballot before it is cast and counted.
- Notifying a voter if he or she has cast too many votes for a particular candidate or issue (overvoted) or neglected to vote for a particular candidate or issue (undervoted).
- Providing a method for voters to “write-in” a candidate of their choice.
- Accumulating total ballots cast.
Voters have a right to a secret ballot and to cast their vote in private. This is necessary to protect voters from being coerced or bribed into voting a certain way. In the context of a voting machine, this means that the system shouldn’t provide a receipt or any way for another person to determine the contents of a voter’s ballot.
Casting a ballot should be easy for voters. This means that a voting machine should be as intuitive to use as possible and contain clear instructions regarding how to vote. The way that the ballot is designed and presented—on-screen or on paper—is also important. Ballot design and usability is an integral part of voting system design.
By federal law, all people, including those with visual, physical or cognitive disabilities, must have the opportunity to independently cast their votes. Paper is not accessible for many people, either because of vision impairment or because pen and paper are hard to manipulate. As the population ages, the demand for adaptive systems with continue to grow. By federal law, voting systems must also have the ability to provide alternative language accessibility.