As the Presidential election nears, attention turns to voting – and counting those votes.
Thanks to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, this year's elections will be the first time that every state will have traded in their old-fashioned lever and punch-card machines for electronic voting. But computerized voting is not without its problems. Glitches arise. Paper jams. Service personnel are not always available in times of trouble. And if that weren't bad enough, there's always human error to add to the mix.
One thing's for certain, though. Everyone wants his or her vote to count. Despite some recent voting debacles, the country is moving to a more accurate way of tallying your vote.
"What you need is a system where if something goes wrong you have a way to recover," said Pam Smith, president of Verified Voting, a non-partisan organization that studies voting systems. "You want to be able to reconstruct what should have been the outcome without a do-over."
It wasn't that long ago that voting mishaps caused a problem with a national election. In the 2000 U.S. Presidential race, 2 million ballots cast that fall were disqualified because they showed multiple votes or none when run through vote-counting machines. A recount was ordered and the election came down to 537 votes in Florida, with George W. Bush prevailing over Al Gore.
In the aftermath, Congress established the Help America Vote Act, which mandated that each state establish a voting system that would allow its citizens to verify a vote before it was cast, tell the voter when he or she had voted for more than the number of selections allowed and offer a chance to correct mistakes. The voting system also had to be accessible to disabled people.
The result was wholesale switching to electronic systems, since the punch card and lever machines couldn't fulfill those requirements without a lot of work. States that didn't want to change the machines had to create a voter education program. According to the Congressional Research Service, by 2010 some 90 percent of voters used some electronic system.
For this year's election between incumbent Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, most voters will see ballots with a "fill in the oval" design that will be read by an optical scanner. According to Verifiedvoting.org, about 25 percent of American voters will use a touch-screen or some other paperless method. The majority of these voting machines will come from just a handful of companies: Nebraska-based Election Software & Services (ES&S), Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems and Hart Intercivic of Texas.
About 1,800 isolated or rural jurisdictions in states such as Alaska still hand count votes, but even then it's in conjunction with other technologies. Only Washington County, Maine (pop. 32,856) has stayed away from machines and continues to count manually at the polls.
The Voting Rights Project has a map that shows which technology is used in your area). There are several designs, sometimes many from the same vendor.
The New Technology
For those people living in districts using the optical scanner, voting will go a little something this: The person will step behind the curtain and find a thick paper ballot and a pen or pencil. She will need to fill in the oval -- similar to a standardized test -- next to the names of the candidates she chooses. She will then feed the ballot into a machine about the size of a copier. Inside the machine, an optical scanner or camera like a digital copier's reads the ballot and records the vote digitally. The machine also prints a physical receipt that remains inside the device and can be used later during an audit to check the electronic count against a physical count. (To discourage vote-buying, voting machines are designed so that they don't create a "receipt" for the voter to take home.)
HOWSTUFFWORKS: How Does the Electoral College Work?
Touch screen systems work in a similar way. The voter will touch a series of menus like an ATM machine's and make her choices there. These machines can also allow for auditing, although not all of them do.
When the polls close, the vote counts from electronic machines are sent digitally to a central facility. Meanwhile, the machines -- which have tamper-resistant seals -- are packed up and trucked to the same place. Machines that generate their own paper ballots can have the totals checked against what was reported, or in some cases, paper ballots will be sent with the machine. Counting is often overseen by an equal number of observers from each party.
Those vote totals you see on TV haven't usually been checked against the paper ballots yet. The procedure that gets the vote totals to news outlets is different. Starting this year in New York City, for example, poll workers will save the tallies to memory sticks and deliver them to police officers, who will hand them over to Board of Election officials. The officials collect the information and then download the data on laptops and submit it to the police department's computer system. From there, the tallies are sent to the Associated Press, which shares the information with other news outlets. The AP recently partnered with Google to provide real-time updates of election maps.
Having sophisticated technology in place is not always a guarantee that voting will run smoothly. The problem is that often the machines aren't tested well before they go out -- a laboratory environment is much different from a real election.
"You have to test and test again," said Jane Platten, the director of the Board of Elections for Cuyahoga County, Ohio. "I wouldn't want anyone to go through what I did."
Platten calls what she went through in the wake of the May 2006 primary elections "a disaster." The machines, which came from ES&S, which declined to be interviewed for this story, would not scan the paper ballots correctly, as the ovals voters filled in were printed too close to the edge of the paper. The county had to print smaller ballots.
Later, in 2010, and again just ahead of the May primaries, a software problem caused the machines to go into an endless loop when the memory card containing the vote tallies was removed to tally the votes stored on them. These glitches appeared when the county tested the machines in simulated elections.
The mishaps did a lot of political damage. "We spent a lot of time regaining the trust of the community," Platten said.
Overall, electronic voting systems require a well-trained staff and a contingency plan for situations like blackouts.
"You don't want people disenfranchised because there was a failure in the equipment," said Smith.
Reading The Ballot
It isn't just technology that can cause problems, though. The very design of a ballot can cause confusion. The Brennan Center for Justice recently published a report covering several examples of good and bad ballot design.
Some of the better layouts put the most important instructions in the top left, where the eye is drawn first. For touch-screen systems, instructions should go with the action -- not all bunched up at the start.
Bad design included absentee ballots that did not clearly indicate where a voter needed to sign. In 2008, Al Franken won a Senate seat by only 312 votes, but 4,000 absentee ballots weren't counted because the voters didn't sign the envelope.
New ballots have a big "X" to show people where to sign.
And then there's the human factor. Voters still make mistakes. Clifford Tatum, executive director of the Board of Elections in Washington, D.C., told Discovery News that the instruction "darken the oval" on a ballot might mean different things to different people: Does it mean to fill it in, make the oval darker or put a check mark? The ballots in the District show a picture of a darkened oval, filled in, to make sure there's no confusion.
In the early days, before voting machines, poll workers opened a box, showed the voters it was empty, locked the box, and then people voted. "That's about as transparent as it gets," said Smith.
But that was then. Today, technology is trying to do the same thing: start with an empty box, keep it secured and have everyone's vote count.