SciTech

How Things Work - Voting Machines

In a democratic country like America, voting is a thoroughly ingrained part of our lives. We are exposed to the process of voting at a very young age, making such groundbreaking decisions as whether to play kickball or dodgeball with a simple show of hands. As young adults, voting becomes much more important. In November?s Presidential election, many students will be voting for the first time. It is therefore important to understand how votes are counted when you step behind the curtain on Election Day.
Across the country, Americans will be casting their votes in many different ways on November 2. Paper ballots are the simplest. In a paper ballot, voters simply mark a box or write in their candidate of choice and submit the ballot, folded, to an election officer who verifies the its authenticity and drops it in a ballot box.
One might regard paper ballots as a bit antediluvian for our times, but they still see use in many rural communities as the primary method of voting. In fact, five counties in Pennsylvania alone still use the paper ballot in certain municipalities, and even more districts use them for absentee voting. Nationally, however, only 1.6 percent of registered voters used paper ballots as of 1999. Paper ballots have the advantage of being completely auditable, but suffer from a slow tallying process that is prone to human error. There is also a danger of ballot stuffing.
The next evolution in voting technology is the mechanical lever system. First used in 1892, these systems reached their peak in the 1960s and are still in use today. Indeed, all polling places in Allegheny County will make use of these machines for the upcoming presidential elections. Cleverly designed, they require no electricity and rely completely on their internal mechanics. They are quite large, being the size of a large wardrobe. A voter walks up to the machine and pulls a large central lever. This lever both closes a curtain around the voter to maintain privacy and readies the machine to accept a vote. The voter is presented with a lever for each candidate or ticket. Voters can change their own votes as many times as they want; and when they?ve made their final decision they pull the central lever back to its original position, which registers their choices, resets the levers, and opens the privacy curtain.
Internally, when the central lever is reset, the voted-on candidate?s lever advances a counter. This counter essentially operates like the odometer of a car. Because of their relative internal simplicity, mechanical lever machines are difficult to ?rig? because it is obvious when one candidate?s linkage rod is disconnected or connected to the wrong counter. They also have proved their reliability, with single machines serving districts for 20 years or more.
Unfortunately, because they leave no audit trail, they are prone to abuse by polling officials who might place multiple votes outside of polling hours. Nevertheless, in 1999, 18.5 percent of voters used this method of voting. Though the federal government has issued legislation to phase out mechanical lever systems by 2006, they may see use beyond that time due to lack of federal funding.
The next two voting methods, commonly known as punch card and optical scan technology, can be discussed together. Though the voter?s procedure in selecting a candidate for each is different ? the former requires the voter to punch a hole in a card and the latter requires one to pencil in a bubble ? the votes are tallied in the same way. Ballots from each are run through a scanner similar to what one?s SATs would be scored with, and the holes or pencil marks are recognized as votes for particular candidates. When the ballots pass under the scanner, something called a ?charge coupled device,? or CCD, has sensitive light detectors that detect incoming photons and turn them into an electronic signal. A penciled-in bubble for a particular candidate, because it is darker than its surroundings, will have a greater emissivity and will emit more photons into the CCD. Similarly, a hole will be darker than its surrounding paper and create the same effect. The CCD detects this and signals to the scanner that it should count the appropriate vote.
But even with such time-tested technologies as these, problems can still arise. In optical scan systems, scanners may have trouble detecting votes if bubbles aren?t filled in adequately. Both systems also face the danger of overvoting, where more candidates are selected than what is directed, either by punching too many holes or failing to erase a mark completely. A poorly designed punch card in Florida caused 19,000 voters to overvote in 2000 elections. If that were not enough, punch card systems may face problems if the holes aren?t punched through completely ? the issue which caused the infamous ?hanging chad? debacle of 2000. Luckily, both optical and punch card ballots can be recounted by hand, and this usually settles the issue, but this takes time. These problems, ironically, haven?t deterred the continued use of these machines, which have been in use since the late 1960s. In 1999 these technologies held 61.7 percent of machine usage by voter.

The latest technology on the block is called direct recording electronic or DRE voting. DRE voting machines have a screen displaying the ballot, and voters use either touch screens, buttons, or a keyboard to select or ?type in? a candidate. This technology offers the advantage of instant, 100-percent-accurate counts, multi-language support, prevention of overvoting, and instant transmission of results to election centers. Just 9.1 percent of registered voters in 1999 used DRE-type voting systems.
These advantages, however, are dependent on the quality of the software present inside these systems, and that has been the subject of heated debate. Unlike the mechanical lever system, the DRE can?t be opened up and inspected to see if a malfunction or foul play has occurred. In a DRE, foul play could be buried in a thousands lines of code? impossible to find. And whereas abuse in other voting machines is localized, a breach in the security of software running on DREs nationwide could have devastating results, causing American citizens to lose all faith in the voting process. Measures have been taken to prevent this kind of thing from happening, which have been spearheaded by the verified voting initiative.
Proponents of verified voting seek some method of proof for the electronic tally of the DRE ? in most cases, a paper receipt the voter verifies and puts in a separate ballot. After all, how can one do a recount on digital number? They hope that their efforts will pay off for the 2004 presidential elections, but much work needs to be done to get at the level of trust that is needed to implement DREs nationwide.
All of these ways to vote may seem a bit overwhelming, but that may soon change. Our government passed a bill in 2002 known as the Help America Vote Act, which makes several important reforms in voting technology, including support for multiple languages and disabled voters, notifications of overvotes, the ability to make changes before casting a ballot, and a recountable paper record. Even though these changes are supposed to take effect by 2006, we may see the persistence of older methods for some time to come. Because many students here at Carnegie Mellon will be using mechanical lever systems in this election, it may be worthwhile to look at more detailed instructions on their use. These can be found at www.dos.state.pa.us/voting/site/default.asp under ?How to Vote.?