Friday, April 10, 2015

Optical scan vs. electronic touchscreen voting machines

The democratic process in any given city, county, state or country should be reasonably independent and impartial such that it is not directly influenced by outside forces. The results of such elections should represent the will of the people in an accurate and transparent manner. This being said, government agencies from around the globe can benefit greatly by collaborating and sharing their knowledge, experience and expertise in regards to voting technologies being used.

Last October, the EVOTE 2014 International Conference was held in Austria, gathering together some of the most influential figures in the vertical of voting paradigms, administration and technology. This has since been followed by the 9th Annual International Electoral Affairs Symposium in December 2014, hosted in South Africa. One of the presenters at the event was Bruce Clark, the Kankakee County Clerk from the United States, and he spoke about the experience of the 2014 midterm elections in Illinois.

In addition to discussing poll worker training, outreach efforts, and ballot preparation, a key subject addressed was the deployment and use of optical scan machines for the election. One of the major trends observed by Clark was the shift in the type of voting equipment used in United States elections over the last 10 to 15 years.

The types of voting equipment in 2000 were incredibly varied and fragmented across the different counties in the United States. There was no systematic approach, resulting in counties using punch cards, DataVote, levers, paper, optical scan, electronic and mixed systems in a rather scattered fashion. By contrast, the vast majority of counties and townships in 2012 used either optical scan (62.8% of counties) or electronic voting machines (32.8%), resulting in less than 5% of counties using different equipment.

Given this, the Kankakee County Clerk took a closer look to compare optical scan (OS) machines with touch screen (TS) electronic voting machines. In the case of an optical scan machine, people still cast their vote on a paper ballot, but it is then inserted into the optical scan machine for tabulation. The advantages here include the fact that people like to see their vote and, in case of a discovery, there is a physical ballot to examine. However, ballot costs can be significant and there are physical limitations to the size of the ballot box.

By comparison, there are many positives associated with the use of a touchscreen direct-recording electronic voting machine (TS DRE). The accuracy level is incredibly high and the touchscreen machines facilitate far better accessibility for voters with disabilities, as they are able to cast a ballot completely unassisted. An audit trail can be produced, just like the optical scan machine, providing great accountability and transparency to further bolster the legitimacy and integrity of election results.

Naturally, considerations need to be made before implementing touchscreen voting machines. There may be issues related to calibration and, in addition to the upfont cost to purchase each machine, counties and election officials must consider the costs of equipment repair or replacement. Even so, the pros clearly far outweigh the cons and this is why touchscreen machines are understandably growing in popularity.

By working with other governments around the world and increasing competition among the vendors of electronic voting machines with touchscreen capabilities, election administrators can encourage further development in the industry, continuing to improve reliability, security and affordability.