Types of Voting Equipment
Technology is used throughout the voting process (see NCSL’s Elections Technology Toolkit for more information) but when most people think of election technology, they think of the equipment used to cast and tabulate votes.
Since the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 required replacing older lever and punch card voting machines, jurisdictions across the country primarily use two types of technology for tabulating votes: optical (or digital) scanners to count paper ballots or Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) machines.
There are also ballot marking devices which provide an electronic interface for voters with disabilities to mark a paper ballot. And, a few small jurisdictions hand count paper ballots.
More on each of these options is below:
Optical/Digital Scan: Scanning devices that tabulate paper ballots. Ballots are marked by the voter, and 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”). Most older optical scan systems use infrared (IR) scanning technology and ballots with timing marks on the edges in order to accurately scan a paper ballot. Newer systems may use “digital scan” technology, whereby a digital image of each ballot is taken during the scanning process. Some vendors may use commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) scanners along with software to tabulate ballots, while others use proprietary hardware.
Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) Voting Machine: A voting machine that is designed to allow a direct vote on the machine by the manual touch of a screen, monitor, wheel or other device. A DRE records the individual votes and vote totals directly into computer memory and does not use a paper ballot. Some DREs come with 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. Voter-marked paper ballots and VVPATs are used as the vote of record for counts, audits and recounts.
Ballot marking device (BMD): A device that permits voters to mark a paper ballot. A voter’s choices are usually presented on a screen in a similar manner to a DRE, or perhaps on a tablet. However, a BMD does not record the voter’s choices into its memory. Instead, it allows the voter to mark the choices on-screen and, when the voter is done, prints the ballot selections. The resulting printed paper ballot is then either hand counted or counted using an optical scan machine. BMDs are useful for people with disabilities, but can be used by any voter. Some systems produced print-outs with bar codes or QR codes instead of a traditional paper ballot. Security experts have pointed out that there are risks associated with these types of systems since the bar code itself is not human readable.
Hand count: The process of counting paper ballots without the use of technology. Many (usually smaller) jurisdictions in the U.S. hand count all paper ballots. Others hand count some paper ballots, such as absentee ballots or provisional ballots.
Ease of use for the voter is an important consideration for a voting system.
One of the biggest usability considerations is the extent to which a given system mitigates unintentional undervotes (when a vote is not recorded in a race) or overvotes (when it appears that the voter has selected more candidates in a race than is allowed, which nullifies all votes for that office). These are considered “errors” and are often used to measure the efficacy of a voting system.
- DREs either prevent error or inform the voter of the error before the ballot is cast. Some also contain a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) so that the voter can view a paper record of his vote and verify that it is correct.
- Precinct optical scanners, where paper ballots are scanned in the polling place, can inform the voter of an error, in which case the voter can fix the error, or vote correctly on a new ballot (the original ballot is not counted).
- Central count optical scanners, where ballots are collected to be scanned and counted in a central location, do not provide voters with the option of fixing an error. Central count scanners process ballots much more quickly, and are often used by jurisdictions that receive a large amount of absentee or vote-by-mail ballots.
- BMDs also have the ability to prevent an error of inform the voter of the error before the ballot is cast, and resulting paper ballots can either be counted at the precinct level or centrally.
- Hand counted paper ballots do not permit the opportunity for voters to correct overvotes or undervotes. It also introduces the opportunity for human error in tabulating votes.
HAVA requires at least one accessible voting device in each polling place that permits a voter with disabilities to cast their votes privately and independently.
- DREs meet the federal requirements for allowing voters with disabilities to cast their votes privately and independently.
- Paper ballots typically do not provide the same ability for voters with disabilities to vote privately and independently, either because of manual dexterity, reduced vision or other disabilities that make paper hard to use. These voters may need assistance from another person to mark the ballot. Or, to meet federal requirements and provide assistance to voters with disabilities, jurisdictions that use paper ballots may offer either a ballot marking device or a DRE, available for voters who choose to use them.
The auditability of a system relates to two postelection procedures: postelection audits and recounts. Postelection audits verify that voting systems are accurately recording and counting votes. Not all states conduct post-election audits and the process varies in those that do, but typically a hand count of paper ballots from randomly selected precincts is compared to the totals reported by the DRE or optical scan system (more information can be found on NCSL’s Postelection Audit page). If a recount is necessary, many states also conduct a hand recount of the paper records.
- DREs don’t generate a paper ballot. For auditability, they can be equipped with a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) that allows the voter to verify that his vote was recorded correctly. It is the VVPATs that are used for post-election audits and recounts. Many older DREs do not come with a VVPAT. However, some election technology vendors can retrofit equipment with VVPAT printers. VVPATs look like a rolling receipt behind glass where voter’s choices are indicated on paper. Studies show that most voters do not review their choices on the VVPAT, and therefore typically do not take that extra step of verifying that their vote was recorded correctly.
- When using paper ballots, it is the paper ballots themselves that are used for post-election audits and recounts. No additional paper trail is necessary.
- Paper ballots also allow election officials to examine ballots to review voter intent. Depending on the laws of the state, a stray mark or circle may be considered when determining a voter’s intent, especially in the case of a recount. This is not possible with a DRE, even those with VVPATs.
- Newer optical scan machines can also generate a digital cast ballot image that can be used for auditing, with the actual paper ballots used as backup. Some security experts have concerns with using a digital cast vote record as opposed to going to the actual paper record, however, pointing out that anything computerized has the potential to be hacked.
- DREs and precinct optical scanners (small scanners that are used in a precinct) keep a running total of results throughout the voting period, although the tally is not made public until after the polls close. When the polls close, election officials can obtain results information relatively quickly.
- Central count optical scanners (larger scanners that are in a centralized location, and ballots are either submitted by mail or are brought to the location for counting) can delay election night reporting because the ballots must be transported, which takes time. Central count optical scanners typically count 200 to 500 ballots per minute. However, many jurisdictions that use central count scanners are permitted to begin preliminarily processing, but not tabulating, ballots that they receive ahead of the election. This is true in many vote-by-mail jurisdictions that receive a large number of ballots before Election Day.
To determine the cost of an election system, the original purchase price is only one element. Additionally, costs for transportation, printing and maintenance must be considered. Costs vary widely depending on the number of units requested, which vendor is chosen, whether or not maintenance is included, etc. Recently, jurisdictions have also taken advantage of financing options available from vendors, so costs can be spread out over a number of years. Here are some things to consider when evaluating the potential cost of a new voting system:
- Quantity needed/required. For polling place units (DREs, precinct scanners or BMDs) sufficient machines must be provided to keep voter traffic flowing. Some states also have statutory requirements for the number of machines that must be provided per polling place. For central count scanners, the equipment must be sufficient to be able to consistently process ballots and provide results in a timely manner. Vendors provide different options for central count scanners, some of which process ballots faster than others.
- Licensing. The software that accompanies any voting system usually comes with annual licensing fees, which affects the long-term cost of the system.
- Support and maintenance costs. Vendors often provide a variety of support and maintenance options at different price points throughout the life of a voting system contract. These contracts are a significant portion of the overall cost of the system.
- Financing options. In addition to an outright purchase, vendors may offer lease options to jurisdictions looking to acquire a new system.
- Transportation. Transporting machines from a warehouse to voting locations must be considered with machines that are used at polling places, but is usually not a concern with a central count system that stays at the elections office year-round.
- Printing. Paper ballots must be printed. If there are several different ballot styles and/or language requirements, printing costs can add up. Some jurisdictions use ballot-on-demand printers that allow jurisdictions to print paper ballots with the correct ballot style as needed and avoid overprinting. DREs can provide as many different ballot styles as necessary and provide ballots in other languages as well, so no printing is required.
For more information on costs and funding options for voting equipment see NCSL’s report The Price of Democracy: Splitting the Bill for Elections and webpage on Funding Elections Technology.
Election Technology Overview
Funding Elections Technology
Voting System Standards, Testing and Certification
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC)
The Brennan Center
State Reports and Resources