Elections Technology Toolkit | Voting Machines and Beyond

8/30/2016

Overview

Elections technology no longer refers to just the equipment on which votes are cast and tabulated. It now means every piece of hardware and software that is used by local election officials throughout the process of administering elections, from registering voters to conducting post-election audits. And the connection between that technology and the humans who use it—voters and election officials—is key.

New options in elections technology are being developed at an ever-quicker pace, and existing voting equipment in most states is wearing out and will need to be replaced in the coming years. Legislators play a role in determining what choices will be available in their states, along with whether they need certification and even whether the state will play any role in funding new election technology.

One of the key concerns for legislators as they look at strategies to replace equipment, is how secure the system is--secure from physical breeches, and secure from hacks.

Because elections technology is now on the radar for legislators in a way it hasn’t ever been before, NCSL has developed this elections technology toolkit. It is a compilation of “tech notes” describing the technology in use at each step of the election process. Expand the windows below for more information on any one of these topics.

Ongoing

Voter Registration

Most states require citizens to register before they can vote. State provides a variety of options to register, and deadlines by which a potential voter must register vary. 

Background | Policy Choices
  • In 49 states, an eligible citizen must be registered to vote. North Dakota does not require voter registration ahead of an election.
  • State voter registration deadlines range from 30 days before an election to Election Day.
  • In other states, citizens can register in a number of ways:
    • Fill out a form at the local elections office.
    • Register at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993, often known as the “Motor Voter” law, requires each state’s driver’s license application to serve as an application for voter registration as well. Registrations received from the state motor vehicle agencies (DMV) account for a significant portion of the total number of registrations in states.
    • Register at other state agencies that provide public assistance.
    • Register through a third-party voter registration organization, such as a registration drive conducted by a political party or the League of Women Voters.
  • Some states also offer the following options:
    • Online voter registration: voters input their information through an online form.
    • Same day registration: voters can register up to and including Election Day and are eligible to vote in that election.
    • Pre-registration: teens can register to vote and will be automatically added to the voter rolls upon turning 18.
    • Automatic voter registration: instead of asking a person at the Department of Motor Vehicles if they would like to register to vote, this option means eligible citizens do not need to take any action to register. They are automatically registered to vote when applying for a driver’s license, and they can choose to “opt out” later if they choose.
What Technology Is involved?
  • Statewide voter registration databases were required by the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. Valid voter registrations are entered into these databases.
    • Databases are either “top-down” (maintained by the state with information supplied by counties) or “bottom-up” (counties have their own lists and provide them to the state at regular intervals).
    • Most states established their statewide registration databases in the early 2000s and many are now aging and may need upgrades or replacement.
    • Statewide voter registration databases are not connected to the voting systems, where votes are cast and captured. Even so, security protocols for all large-scale databases should be in place.
  • Online voter registration systems allow voters to input their information entirely online.
NCSL Resources

Maintaining the Voter List

Maintaining an accurate voter list requires many different state databases to “talk to each other," with the goal of ensuring that everyone on the list is eligible to vote. States vary in how they handle the upkeep of their voter lists. 

Background | Policy Choices

  • All states take steps to keep their voter registration rolls accurate and up-to-date.
  • The goal of maintaining an accurate voter list is to prevent ineligible people from voting, prevent anyone from voting twice and, by reducing inaccuracies, speed up the voter check-in process at polling places.
  • States have processes in place for removing records of duplicate records, deceased voters, felons and people who have moved.
  • To identify potential inaccuracies or those that should be removed from the list, states compare data from federal agencies, state agencies, or other states.
  • The time frame by which these checks occur varies by state and the type of check – some may occur monthly, while others may be just yearly.
What Technology Is Involved?
  • States use their voter registration databases to run checks against other agency databases.
  • Linking voter registration lists with other databases, such as the state database for motor vehicle records, is increasingly becoming a topic of interest and a method for improving list accuracy.
  • In recent years there has also been an increased focus on interstate database comparisons through projects such as the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) and the Interstate Voter Cross-Check Program. These systems allow participating states to directly compare their data to identify potential duplicate registrations or inaccuracies. With ERIC, data is encrypted in both directions, and ERIC does not have the ability to delete, replace or alter voter records. That function is left to the states.
NCSL Resources

 

Before an Election

Selecting Voting Equipment

How do states and jurisdictions choose the equipment used for voting? What certification requirements are needed, and is there a state role in funding voting equipment every decade or so? The legislature has a role to play in both of these questions.

Background | Policy Choices

Legislators have a role in the choice of voting equipment in their state in three ways. They:

  • Set standards for what voting machines in the state must do.  These standards include security, accuracy, verifiability, accessibility for all voters (including those with disabilities) and other values.
  • Determine who tests the machines to make sure they are doing what they should. 
  • Establish a certification process that provides the “go ahead” for jurisdictions to start buying and using the system.  

Sometimes, states also help foot the bill for jurisdictions looking to buy new voting equipment.

Much of the voting equipment currently used in the U.S. was purchased with federal money made available through the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Generally speaking, the equipment is nearing the end of its usable life, and there is no expectation that a second injection of federal money will be available in the foreseeable future. Some state budgets include funding for the purchase of voting equipment or provide revolving funds or grant programs to assist local jurisdictions with purchases.  Most often, though, local jurisdictions must fund their own equipment.

What Technology Is Involved?
  • In 2000 the nation was a patchwork of voting systems, with punch card and lever machines still in use in many jurisdictions. HAVA changed this by mandating the replacement of these machines. As a result, 56 percent of counties containing 68 percent of the nation’s voters, purchased new voting systems between 2000 and 2008. The voting systems in use still vary by jurisdictions, but now the patchwork is dominated by DREs and optical scan systems.
  • Optical scan systems count paper ballots that have been specifically marked. Voters must either fill in a bubble or a box, or complete an arrow to indicate their choices. Similar systems are used to grade multiple choice questions for standardized tests. Ballots may either be scanned on precinct-based optical scan systems in the polling place (“precinct count system”) or collected in a ballot box to be scanned at a central location (“central count system”). 
  • Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines are designed to allow a voter to cast a vote directly on the machine by the manual touch of a screen, monitor, wheel, or other device. The machine records the individual votes directly into computer memory. DREs do not use a paper ballot, but may contain a Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), a permanent paper record showing all votes cast by the elector. Voters who use DRE voting machines with paper trails have the opportunity to review a paper record of their vote before casting it, and it is this paper record that is used as the vote of record for counts, audits and recounts.
  • Some jurisdictions hand count paper ballots.
  • New technologies are being developed. Some jurisdictions are using off-the-shelf hardware (laptops or tablets) with specially designed election software programs, which is less expensive than using specially designed hardware for voting.
  • Some jurisdictions are considering the use of “open source” software for elections, whereby the source code for election programs would be available for scrutiny, making it more transparent than if it were owned just by the voting system vendor.
  • At this point, voting systems are not connected to the Internet, in large part because of security concerns.
NCSL Resources

Designing the Ballot

Various programs are involved with designing the perfect ballot. Legislative requirements for ballot design may include everything from font size to candidate order, and the software involved with designing the ballot must be able to accommodate a state's unique needs.

Background | Policy Choices

  • Once an election jurisdiction knows which candidates and/or ballot measures have qualified for the ballot, the process of designing the ballot begins.
  • Much of what is involved with ballot design may be statutorily required – everything from the order that candidates appear on the ballot to font size and layout choices.
  • Many jurisdictions conduct usability tests with actual voters to ensure the ballot design is understandable and intuitive.
  • Ballots may be designed on in-house software or by vendors under contract.
What Technology Is Involved?
  • As technology becomes more common in election offices, many administrators use an Election Management System (EMS) to design and produce ballots.
  • The EMS generates and maintains a database that contains the type of election, all precincts, districts, races, number to vote for, and method of voting.
  • Among other functions, the EMS is used to design the ballot and instructions for marking it, and then generate the ballot either on an electronic voting machine or on paper.
  • Anything about vendors?
Resources
  • Civic Design’s Field Guides on ballot design
  • Contact NCSL for additional resources on candidate ballot order, ballot rotation and other ballot design inquiries.

Pre-Election Testing

As with any large undertaking involving technology, the mantra for election officials before an election is test-test-test. A variety of tests are conducted prior to an election to ensure the equipment is working correctly. 

Background | Policy Choices
  • Before each election, election officials test the equipment that tabulates votes in order to make sure that the system is counting the ballots as it should. These are called 'Logic and Accuracy Tests.'
  • 'Logic and Accuracy' tests make sure that the ballot content has been coded correctly, i.e. that a vote for a given contest on each and every ballot style is being accurately tallied and reported.
  • These tests may be conducted by the local election official or by the vendor under contract.
  • This process is generally open to the public. Jurisdictions may also conduct a “simulated election” to go through and test all of the equipment as if it were Election Day to ensure everything is operating as it should.
What Technology Is Involved?
  • While there is a lot of variation in the type of equipment used by election jurisdictions, every type of equipment must be tested for functionality and accuracy before an election.
  • Pre-election testing is often set in statute.
  • Additional tests for security and functionality may also be conducted.
Resources

 

During an Election

Ballot on Demand

Printers that can produce voters' exact ballots “on demand” when they arrive at an early voting site or Election Day voting centers that serve multiple precincts. A jurisdiction may need to accomodate many different "ballot styles."

Background | Policy Choices
  • Many states have introduced vote centers, larger polling sites that combine many precinct polling sites.
    • These sites are typically placed in high traffic locations.
    • Voters from anywhere in the jurisdiction can vote at any vote center. 
    • Counties that use vote centers have fewer, but larger, voting locations.
  • At vote centers it is helpful to be able to produce a variety of ballot styles to suit every voter in the country.
    • One way to do this is to stock every different ballot that could be needed.
    • Another way is to use a ballot on demand printer, which can be programmed to produce all the ballots on an as-needed basis by using a printer that is programmed with all the potential ballot styles.
 What Technology Is Involved?
  • Ballot on demand printers can produce the correct ballot style for the voter “on demand” when the voter appears in the vote center.
  • Ballot on demand systems often work with electronic poll books or directly with a state’s voter registration database.
  • These systems are not connected to the vote-counting equipment, such as an optical or digital scan machine.
  • Although there is a cost for purchasing these machines ($5,000 – $7,000), there is also a significant cost to having sufficient numbers of each type of ballot style at a vote center.
  • Election officials may fear that additional technology can lead to additional points of failure. Jurisdictions that use ballot on demand printers often have a certain number of pre-printed ballots available in case of a technical problem. 
NCSL Resources

Electronic Ballot Transmission

Under certain circumstances states may permit some voters to turn in their ballots via alternate methods, such as by email, fax or Internet. These methods may be reserved for certain voters, such as military and overseas citizens. 

Background Policy Choices

  • Voting via the Internet is a concept that is several years, if not decades, from being viable. However many states have options for voters to return ballots via electronic means – via fax, email or a web upload – in certain circumstances. These methods may use the Internet to transmit ballots.
  • Most often, this option is reserved for members of the military or overseas citizens who have trouble returning their ballots by traditional means.
  • The federal Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act (MOVE) of 2009 requires states to provide blank absentee ballots to military and overseas voters at least 45 days before an election, but does not address the return of voted ballots
  • Many states do permit the electronic return of voted ballots from military and overseas voters in certain circumstances. They may ask these voters to return their ballots in PDF format by email, or by fax (which could be a web-based fax system) or by uploading it to a special site.
  • States are beginning to expand these options to other voters – for example emergency first responders who are not in their home jurisdiction during an election may use electronic ballot transmission in a few states. A few states also permit voters with disabilities to use this option.
  • There are security concerns with any method of electronic ballot transmission, and computer experts recommend only use this option in limited circumstances. The value of security has to be weighed against the value of providing the ability to vote for citizens who are living overseas.
What Technology Is Involved?
  • Fax
    • The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) has an electronic transmission service for local election officials. This enables local officials to transmit and receive election materials via toll-free fax to/from eligible military and overseas voters.
    • If returning a ballot via fax, a voter generally needs access to a fax machine. However, FVAP’s electronic transmission service provides a fax to email conversion when the voter only has email. 
  • Email
    • A voter who receives a ballot by email needs access to a printer. The ballot can be printed and returned via mail, or scanned and returned by email for states that permit this option. In these cases the voter also needs access to a scanner.
  • Web upload
    • A very small number of states permit a voted ballot to be uploaded through a web-based system. The voter receiving an electronic blank ballot prints it out, signs any required affidavits, and scans the ballot and related materials, which can then be uploaded into the system.
  • Ballot marking systems
    • Some states provide online ballot marking systems that permit eligible voters to use an online system to select their choices on the ballot. The ballot can then be printed and mailed, or returned in one of the ways listed above (if permitted by that state). The advantage of this type of system is that voter intent is clear – there are no stray or ambiguous marks on the ballot.
  • In most jurisdictions, once a ballot is received via electronic means, whether it is fax, email or web upload, the voters choices have to be transcribed onto an official ballot, on ballot stock (a heavier paper). Two election officials of different parties are usually involved in this process, to ensure the voter’s choices are accurately reflected. It is this official ballot that is counted.
Resources

NCSL Resources

Other Resources

Electronic Poll Books

Traditional paper poll books are beginning to be replaced by databases that can be pulled up on a laptop or tablet. These electronic poll books are able to do much more than simply list a voter's name and information. States are deciding whether to set statewide standards for their use. 

Background Policy Choices

  • In the 2014 general election 36 percent of voters cast a ballot outside of the traditional polling place on Election Day, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey.
  • As the number of voters who use “convenience voting” options (i.e. vote outside of the traditional polling place) increases, jurisdictions are using a variety of technological innovations to make the process more efficient.
  • Electronic poll books, or e-poll books, are a useful tool for jurisdictions conducting early voting at multiple sites, or for jurisdictions that use a vote center model (i.e. larger polling sites that can accommodate voters from throughout the jurisdiction). Statutory authorization is not always needed for jurisdictions to begin using e-poll books, though some states have chosen to explicitly authorize their use in statute.
  • Some states also test and certify e-poll books at the state level to ensure that they meet the state’s functional requirements. This may be required by statute or administrative code.

 

What Technology Is Involved?
  • An e-poll book:
    • Replaces the traditional paper poll book, the roster of eligible voters in a precinct or district.
    • Is not connected to the voting equipment.
    • Typically looks like a tablet or a laptop computer and allows poll workers to look up a voter as they would search on Google, rather than sift through an alphabetical list of names.
    • Makes more data available to the poll worker than a traditional paper poll book. For instance, the poll worker can immediately see if the voter is in the correct polling location and if he or she has already voted.
    • Allows poll workers to deal with voter registration problems more efficiently and perhaps update records in real time.
    • Can gather information about wait times to be used in election planning for the future.
    • May have the ability to scan driver’s licenses, speeding up the voter check-in process.
    • May use an electronic signature pad that immediately captures the voter’s signature, just like a signature pad in a grocery store.
    • May be connected in real-time to the statewide voter registration system, though some states prohibit an Internet connection.
NCSL Resources

Mail Ballots

States and jursidictions nationwide have experienced an increase in the number of voters voting absentee or by mail. As more mail ballots come in, there are some technologies that can assist election officials in processing and tabulating these votes more smoothly.

Background | Policy Choices

mail ballot drop box

  • A few states send all eligible voters a mail ballot. The voter can choose to return the cast ballot by mail, or drop it off at the local election official’s office or a secured drop-box.
  • Many other states allow certain elections (municipal or special elections, for example) to be held by mail.
  • Even in states that do not hold all-mail elections, at least some voters will receive, vote and return mail ballots. In all states, this will include ballots from military and overseas voters (UOCAVA) and domestic absentee voters, whether the state requires an excuse to vote absentee or not.
  • Some states also allow any voter to opt into a “permanent absentee voting list” to receive an absentee ballot automatically for future elections.
What Technology Is Involved?
  • States with high volumes of mail ballots often need equipment that helps to sort paper ballots received by mail, and many of the larger jurisdictions have purchased mail ballot sorting equipment.
  • Ballot sorters can automatically note that the ballot has been received and sort ballots that do not contain a signature. They may also have the capability to scan signatures and send them remotely to a bipartisan team of election workers that compares the signature on the ballot to that on the voter’s registration form to ensure that the ballot is coming from the correct voter.
  • To help track all of these mail ballots, some states are using barcode scanning technology or working with the post office’s mail tracking system.
  • Some jurisdictions even allow voters to check the status of their mail ballot through an online system or via text message notifications.
NCSL Resources

 

After an Election

Post-Election Audits

After an election states may conduct a check of election equipment and the process used to administer the election to make sure everything worked as planned. The check could be a partial recount of votes to verify the results, or a process by which the official looks back at security procedures to make sure there were no lapses.

Background | Policy Choices

  • A post-election audit can check that the equipment used to count votes worked properly, that the votes were counted as cast, and that the election yielded the correct result. This is accomplished by recounting some portion of the votes.
  • The results of randomly-selected precincts or voting machines are hand-counted, and the result is compared to the results the machine tally. The record to be counted can be the actual paper ballot in jurisdictions that use paper ballots, or the paper printout produced by a direct-electronic recording (DRE) voting machine equipped with such a printer.
  • Not all states require post-election audits, and the conduct of these audits is only possible in states that have a paper trail (which is not required in all states). In states that don’t have this paper trail, “procedural audits” can still be conducted, and tallies from internal and external drives can be compared.
  • A procedural audit can check that nothing in the voting procedure went wrong – for example it can look at chain-of-custody logs for voting machines and verify that the number of ballots received is the same as the number of voters that signed the poll book. It cannot, however, provide a check that vote was recorded as the voter intended.
  • Post-election audits provide a check on how equipment functioned during an election. This is different from a predictive test like pre-election testing, which shows how equipment should perform. Occasionally these pre-election tests turn up a programming error or equipment malfunction.
  • In recent years, researchers have developed audit models using more efficient statistical methods rather than choosing a flat percentage of precincts or machines to examine each time. One of these methods is called a “risk-limiting audit” (RLA). The number of ballots selected for counting in a RLA depends on the margin of victory in the election. In a close election more ballots are examined since it would take only a small number of ballots to change the result. If the margin is wide, fewer ballots need to be examined. A sufficient number of ballots will be counted to either confirm the correctness of the outcome or provide evidence that it should be changed, if it was incorrect.
What Technology Is Involved?
  • At the basic level, no technology is needed to conduct a post-election audit. The audit is conducted manually by examining paper ballots or a paper trail from a DRE machine and comparing the results to the reported tally.
  • This process can be time-consuming, and therefore has a cost associated with it. 
  • Post election audits function as one way to verify that the voting equipment functioned properly.
Resources

NCSL Resources

Other Resources

 

Additional Resources