Voting Technology: An Evaluation of Requirements and Solutions

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Technological change impacts politics as well as business. The recent United States Presidential election sheds light on problems that can arise from the use of punch card ballots, an obsolete technology. Some observers are suggesting high-tech alternatives such as the Internet, while others viscerally distrust computer technology and would eschew it altogether.

These issues are similar to the ones that businesses confront every day when dealing with technological change. It is therefore instructive to examine voting technology issues in the way that most businesses would approach an important information technology decision.

Evolution of Punch Card Technology

Punch card technology predates digital computing by at least 60 years. Planners of the 1890 United States Census knew that by tallying marks on paper from some 62 million questionnaires and then adding up the marks by hand, there was no hope of tabulating the data into useful form until well after the next Census of 1900. Their solution came during the 1880s from inventor Herman Hollerith, whose idea was to encode Census data on punch cards and to read and tabulate the data using an automatic machine. Hollerith's Tabulating Machine Company would eventually become International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924, and "Hollerith encoding" survives today as the prevailing way to represent data on punch cards.

Punch cards became a popular medium for data storage with the proliferation of digital computing. Today's universal practice of storing data on disk was costly technology, and prone to breakdown, well into the 1970s. Punch cards were much cheaper and often more reliable, especially when entering data by keypunch machine. It isn't necessary to score or perforate blank cards before punching them mechanically, and the mechanism doesn't leave dents, dimples, "swinging" chad or "hanging" chad behind.

Still, punch card systems have their limitations. They are agonizingly slow by today's standards, and downright horrific for anyone who accidentally loses or drops a full deck or box of cards. Also, mechanical card feeders wear down quickly with heavy use, introducing the possibility of tabulation errors. For these reasons, very few punch card systems were sold since the 1970s after cheap, fast and reliable disk storage technology became widely available.

Existing Punch Card Systems

Voting systems vary widely in the United States and include punch cards (36%), lever machines (27%), optical scanning (22%), mixed electronic and mechanical systems (8%), direct computer recording including touch-screen and the Internet (4%) and the original paper ballot (3%).

Punch card balloting systems made their debut in 1964. With this form of balloting, voters use a stylus to dislodge tiny pieces of card stock ("chad") from perforations that line up with the ballot, creating holes that a card reader detects during the tabulation process. Punch card balloting systems like "Votomatic" and "Datavote" found widespread acceptance over the years owing to their low cost, portability and the ease of tabulating votes automatically.

Despite recent technology advances, replacement costs deter many jurisdictions from upgrading their systems. Los Angeles County, the largest election jurisdiction in the United States with 3.8 million voter registrations, continues to rely on its punch card voting system and has only recently begun to experiment with touch-screen technology.

Problems with Existing Systems

The drawbacks of punch card systems, and punch card balloting systems in particular, are dramatically evident in the unfolding 2000 Presidential election. These drawbacks fall into four categories: what technologists would call lack of a proper "user interface;" improper punches; machine tabulation errors; and discerning voter intent during a manual recount.

Controversy surrounds Palm Beach County's now infamous "butterfly" ballot. Some voters may have unwittingly chosen the wrong candidate because of the ballot's allegedly confusing layout. Others, realizing their mistake before leaving the voting booth, may have cast a second vote without obtaining a fresh ballot, thus "overvoting" and invalidating their vote. Or, they may have written a candidate's name on their ballot in hopes this would correct their error. They did this, perhaps, to avoid the embarrassment of having to ask a poll worker for a new ballot.

Unfortunately, as with any batch processing method, punch card balloting systems lack the ability of modern user interfaces to validate and confirm a voter's choices at the moment of truth - in the voting booth. Validation logic could quickly determine illegal vote combinations, for instance, and warn the voter accordingly. Confirmation logic could display voters' choices for review, and give them a chance to start over in privacy.

Next come improper punches, or failures to dislodge chad well enough to permit machine detection. These manifest themselves as dents, dimples or partial detachments of chad and might result from a worn stylus, card stock with defective scores or perforations, worn equipment that allows ballots to give way rather than hold taut against the stylus, or a voter's unsteady stroke. Partial punches may create a false "undervote" that punch card balloting systems, lacking confirmation logic, cannot detect in the voting booth.

Third is the machine tabulation itself. There is little evidence to suggest that punch card reading mechanisms themselves are a significant source of error. Most punch card readers use light-emitting diodes (LED) and sensors that activate only when light passes through a card. Because it is electronic rather than mechanical, this technology has proven highly reliable over the years.

By far the greatest opportunity for machine tabulation error occurs before punch card ballots are actually fed into the reader. On Election Day, workers at each polling place lock the ballots in boxes and ship them to a central data processing facility. No matter what precautions are taken, security and control lapses are inevitable and invite many opportunities for tampering or unintentional error. Ballots or boxes could be mislaid, damaged or sent to the wrong location at any stage of the process.

Although LED technology is electronic, card-feeding mechanisms are not. Keypunch cards frequently jam when they are fed into the reader, even with minimal human handling. Because punch card ballots receive much more human handling than keypunch cards, and may have imperfections such as "swinging," "hanging" or loose chad that keypunch cards do not, they are likelier to exceed a feeding mechanism's tolerances. Moreover, aging card processing equipment is getting difficult to maintain and even harder to replace; many of the original manufacturers have gone out of business, and most others no longer sell or even maintain their equipment because there is virtually no market for it. For these reasons, card jams and consequential ballot damage are practically inevitable while the vote is being tabulated.

And, of course, that "swinging," "hanging" or loose chad can produce false tabulations even when everything else is in perfect working order. Were it to inadvertently cover a hole in the ballot, a sensor won't activate. This will create a false "undervote." Alternatively, an invalid "overvote" could escape detection if the chad is concealing part of an illegal vote combination.

Should a recount become necessary, it becomes very difficult to discern a voter's intent when only dents or dimples appear on a punch card ballot, unless of course the voter has also written a choice on the card.

New System Requirements

The scope of this evaluation includes the marking, casting, tallying and verification of election ballots. It does not include voter registration or any of the procedures for preventing someone from circumventing registration requirements or casting multiple ballots. Neither does it include certifying an election after the final tally.

Whatever technology it employs, any new system must meet the following essential requirements:

  1. The system must be readily accessible to all legitimate voters within each precinct. It must be capable of receiving ballots at polling places that are set up in each precinct on Election Day. Alternatively, the system must provide means for absentee voting that comply with the applicable election laws.

  2. Ballots must not reveal a voter's identity.

  3. The system must be capable of presenting the ballot in a clear and straightforward manner, in compliance with all applicable election laws. Methods for presenting the ballot must be certifiable in advance and remain tamper-proof, after certification, until the polls close.

  4. The system must prevent any delays, other than unforeseeable natural disasters, that might obstruct or discourage legitimate voters from voluntarily casting their ballots before the polls close. It must also prevent anyone from voting before the polls open or after they close.

  5. Before casting their ballots, voters must be able to correct errors, or void their ballots and start over completely. Errors and void ballots must not count towards the final tally. Audit and control mechanisms must be available to ensure that void ballots, if any, don't count.

  6. The system must secure each ballot against loss, misplacement, theft, damage and tampering from the moment it is cast until final verification of the vote. Audit and control mechanisms must exist to account for all ballots cast, and reconcile this accounting against a subsequent tally of ballots that either fail verification, or pass verification and count towards the total vote.

  7. The system must be capable of accurately verifying all ballots cast at polling places, and accurately tallying and reporting the valid ballots, within a few hours after the polls close. Methods for verifying and tallying ballots must be certifiable in advance and remain tamper-proof, after certification, until final verification of the vote.

  8. The system must preserve all cast ballots in their original form, to permit visual inspection and confirmation of the final tally. The original form of cast ballots must maximize an inspector's ability to discern the voter's intent at the time the ballot was cast.

  9. The system must be affordable to each electoral jurisdiction.

In addition, the new system should be capable of validating each ballot for legality before it is cast, to prevent voters from casting invalid ballots. Methods for validating ballots must be certifiable in advance and remain tamper-proof, after certification, until the polls close.

Possible Balloting Technologies

A variety of electronic technologies are available for casting ballots. These include interactive entry systems, interactive touch-screen systems, mark-sense systems and scanning systems, all set up at polling places and capable of validating each ballot for legality before it is cast. Interactive computer entry systems would also permit voting over the Internet.

Interactive entry systems require voters to select their candidates using a keyboard and, possibly, an electronic pen or a mouse. Voting instructions, the ballot, and voter choices appear on a monitor, and the equipment can provide Braille impressions and sound for voters with visual or reading disabilities.

Interactive touch-screen systems work just like automatic teller machines (ATMs). Instead of using a keyboard or mouse, voters make their choices by touching a monitor where voting instructions and the ballot appear. This equipment can also provide Braille impressions and sound.

Mark-sense systems require voters to mark paper ballots, which in addition to text can have Braille impressions for voters with visual disabilities. The ballots are fed through an optical scanner that reads and possibly validates the ballots. Scanning could occur before a ballot is actually cast, allowing voters to obtain and mark a fresh ballot if they make a mistake. The scanning devices should imprint cancellation marks to ensure that void ballots don't count.

Scanning systems work like handheld retail bar code scanners. They require voters to aim a character or bar code scanner at their choices, which appear on a placard showing voting instructions and the ballot. Though fast and accurate, these systems aren't especially user-friendly for voters with disabilities.

After validating ballots and obtaining the voter confirmation, all these systems are capable of printing paper receipts evidencing the actual ballots cast. Just as they now do with punch cards and paper ballots, voters can inspect their receipts for accuracy, then leave them with a poll worker as evidence of their vote.

Technology Drawbacks

Enticing as these possibilities may be, none are without drawbacks. For instance, all electronic solutions require a power supply. Provision must be made for a portable backup power supply at each polling place in the event of a power failure. Paper balloting procedures must be in place as a backup in case this equipment fails.

Choosing the right client/server architecture presents a second issue. Three basic architectural approaches are available, each having its own advantages and drawbacks.

One approach uses "rich" or fully functional clients: freestanding devices that run their own applications, and store ballots electronically in their own database. Periodically, or after the polls close, each device transmits the contents of its database to a central server via modem.

A second "three tier" approach connects all the devices at a polling place to a server computer at the polling place, using local area networks (LANs) made up of cable connections or radio frequency (RF) transmitters. Interactive voting and printing applications could run on each client device, on the server computer, or be distributed between the client and server. The server tallies the votes and accumulates them in a local database. Periodically, or after the polls close, the local server transmits its local database to a central server via modem.

Yet another "lightweight client" approach connects all the devices at every polling place to a central server, via modem and the Internet. The devices could connect via browsers to interactive applications running on the central server. Alternatively, the interactive applications could be distributed between the clients and the central server. The server tallies the votes and accumulates them in its central database.

Tradeoffs: Economy Versus Integrity

These approaches represent varying tradeoffs between economy versus integrity. For example, the rich client approach requires fitting thousands of devices in each electoral jurisdiction with the right software, certifying each device, and distributing devices to the right polling places before Election Day. The three-tier approach requires assembling, configuring and certifying LANs and their components at hundreds of polling places in each electoral jurisdiction before Election Day. Either way, the cost of technician labor for setting up and supporting each election could easily exceed the equipment's original acquisition cost. Yet for the same reason it becomes difficult to systematically tamper with all this equipment after it is set up.

Architectures that rely on lightweight client devices and the Internet require substantially less setup effort, but anyone with the right credentials could "hack" into the central server and perform all kinds of mischief. There are also issues like providing sufficient telecommunications bandwidth to each polling place, keeping these connections constantly available during Election Day, and ensuring that the central server stays up and running at all times. And even when these issues are overcome, the central server must have sufficient capacity to handle thousands of clients at a time without driving response cycles too high. This is especially problematic in large, urban jurisdictions where many people vote during peak hours, just before or just after work.

Internet Voting

The Internet is also seen as a way for people to bypass polling places altogether, and vote at their convenience from home, work, or for that matter anywhere. Some jurisdictions in the United States are already experimenting with Internet voting.

Apart from issues of central server integrity, Internet voting has two important drawbacks that virtually preclude it from replacing the traditional polling place anytime in the near future.

First is the issue of the secret ballot. Polling places actually perform two critical processes. One is authorizing people to vote, including same-day voter registration in some jurisdictions. The other is balloting. Today, these processes take place at the same location but they are separate and distinct from one another. First, prospective voters identify themselves and sign the roll, in order to authenticate their credentials and ensure that they vote only once. This process entitles each legitimate voter to receive an official ballot.

Next, voters with official ballots make their decisions in privacy. Although many jurisdictions assign a unique serial number to each ballot, and print that number on the voter's receipt, the number is never written in the voter roll. This makes it impossible to trace a ballot back to an individual voter.

On the Internet, voters have to identify and authenticate themselves when they log on to cast their ballots. Stringent authentication might require a digital signature. Without this precaution, there is no way to prevent an illegitimate voter from casting a ballot, nor is there any way to prevent someone from voting more than once. This requirement may cause many voters to worry about secrecy, no matter what assurances are given the voting public prior to an election. They might opt for a polling place, instead.

Second is the issue of accessibility. Many voters don't own a computer, don't have access to one, or don't have Internet access. They too will opt for polling places.

As long as these issues exist, Internet voting can never completely replace voting at polling places. And therein lies a dilemma. How will workers at a polling place know whether or not a prospective voter has already cast a ballot elsewhere, over the Internet? Conversely, what would prevent someone from casting a duplicate ballot over the Internet, after they cast their first ballot at a polling place?

Technologists will reply that interactive, on-line voter registration and tracking systems are the answer. Poll workers can instantly determine if a prospective voter has already cast their ballot, as can the Internet system. But even if this solution were available today, it does not overcome a fundamental flaw. Internet systems are in practice capable of requiring a digital signature before allowing someone to vote anywhere outside of a polling place, while poll workers can at best insist upon a hand signature. No technology exists today to compare digital and hand signatures, and conclusively verify that the two signatures match.

Of course, technology is available to record hand signatures digitally. But few if any people use this technology at home and only a small number might be able to do so at work. It's unlikely they would invest in this technology for the sole purpose of bypassing a polling place once every two years. This would largely defeat the purpose of Internet voting. If the Internet system requires digital hand signatures to assure the integrity of the balloting process, one can predict that very few people would vote over the Internet.


Taking all these factors into consideration, rich client/server architecture using mark-sense technology appears to be the best way to replace obsolete voting systems.

The pros and cons of various client/server architectures seem to suggest that rich client systems offer the greatest potential benefits of integrity and reliability in relation to cost. Rich client systems could incorporate any of the available balloting technologies, each having its own advantages and drawbacks.

Touch-screen systems are probably the easiest for the average voter to use, and are just as accessible to voters with disabilities as any other alternative. However, they are more expensive than the other available technologies.

Interactive entry systems are cheaper than touch-screen systems, but they could befuddle some voters who are not computer-literate. And scanning systems would be difficult for voters with disabilities to use.

Mark-sense systems come closest to paper balloting, thus overcoming objections from voters who are afraid of, or distrust computer systems. Concerns persist, however, over the reliability of optical scanning equipment, particularly when voters don't completely darken their choice. These concerns can be put to rest if the scanning occurs before ballots are actually cast, allowing voters to confirm their vote, or void their ballot and obtain a replacement if their initial vote is illegal or doesn't properly register. And should a hand recount become necessary, voters could clearly indicate their actual intention in writing on their ballots.

Any decision to adopt mark-sense technology must also consider the additional complexity of controlling, accounting for and possibly reconciling void as well as valid ballots.

About the Author

Nelson M. Nones CPIM is the Director of Global Marketing for CIM Vision International, Inc. in Long Beach, California, USA. Mr. Nones has over 25 years' professional and managerial experience as both a developer and implementer of Manufacturing Execution (MES), Warehouse Management (WMS), Enterprise Resources Planning (ERP), logistics, Manufacturing Resources Planning (MRP-II) and general business accounting software. He has lived and worked in the United States, Asia and Europe, pursued advanced studies in Economics and Geography, and was a market research consultant for the first 8 years of his career. He was Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) in 1986 by the American Production and Inventory Control Society.

You can contact Mr. Nones through the CIM Vision website:

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