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U.S. Elections

Election Voting Systems - from punchcard to DRE

Paper Ballots

A Paper ballot systems employs uniform official ballots of various stock weight on which the names of all candidates and issues are printed. Voters record their choices, in private, by marking the boxes next to the candidate or issue choice they select and drop the voted ballot in a sealed ballot box.
This paper ballot system was first adopted in the Australian state of Victoria in 1856, and in the remaining Australian states over the next several years. The paper ballot system thereafter became known as the "Australian ballot." New York became the first American State to adopt the paper ballot for statewide elections in 1889.
As of 1996, paper ballots were still used by 1.7% of the registered voters in the United States. They are used as the primary voting system in small communities and rural areas, and quite often for absentee balloting in other jurisdictions.


Punchcard systems employ a card (or cards) and a small clipboard-sized device for recording votes. Voters punch holes in the cards (with a supplied punch device) opposite their candidate or ballot issue choice. After voting, the voter may place the ballot in a ballot box, or the ballot may be fed into a computer vote tabulating device at the precinct.
Two common types of punchcards are the "Votomatic" card and the "Datavote" card. With the Votomatic card, the locations at which holes may be punched to indicate votes are each assigned numbers. The number of the hole is the only information printed on the card. The list of candidates or ballot issue choices and directions for punching the corresponding holes are printed in a separate booklet. (Today’s "Votomatic" cards are the direct descendents of the original punchcard developed from a concept introduced by political scientist and former government administrator Dr. Joseph P. Harris) With the Datavote card, the name of the candidate or description of the issue choice is printed on the ballot next to the location of the hole to be punched.
Fulton and De Kalb Counties in Georgia were the first jurisdictions to use punchcards and computer tally machines when they adopted the system for the 1964 primary election. In the November 1964 Presidential election, these two jurisdictions were joined by Lane County, Oregon, and San Joaquin and Monterey Counties in California, who also adopted the punchcard system.
Although many jurisdictions are now switching from punchcard systems to more advanced Marksense or DRE systems, Los Angeles County, the Nation’s largest election jurisdiction with 3.8 million registered voters, continues to rely on their punchcard voting system. In the 1996 Presidential election, some variation of the punchcard system was used by 37.3% of registered voters in the United States.

Mechanical Lever Machines

On mechanical lever voting machines, the name of each candidate or ballot issue choice is assigned a particular lever in a rectangular array of levers on the front of the machine. A set of printed strips visible to the voters identifies the lever assignment for each candidate and issue choice. The levers are horizontal in their unvoted positions.
The voter enables the machine with a lever that also closes a privacy curtain. The voter pulls down selected levers to indicate choices. When the voter exits the booth by opening the privacy curtain with the handle, the voted levers are automatically returned to their original horizontal position. As each lever returns, it causes a connected counter wheel within the machine to turn one-tenth of a full rotation. The counter wheel, serving as the "ones" position of the numerical count for the associated lever, drives a "tens" counter one-tenth of a rotation for each of its full rotations. The "tens" counter similarly drives a "hundreds" counter. If all mechanical connections are fully operational during the voting period, and the counters are initially set to zero, the position of each counter at the close of the polls indicates the number of votes cast on the lever that drives it. Interlocks in the machine prevent the voter from voting for more choices than permitted.
The first official use of a lever type voting machine, known then as the "Myers Automatic Booth," occurred in Lockport, New York in 1892. Four years later they were employed on a large scale in the city of Rochester, New York, and soon were adopted statewide. By 1930, lever machines had been installed in virtually every major city in the United States, and by the 1960’s well over half of the Nation’s votes were being cast on these machines.
Mechanical lever machines were used by 20.7% of registered voters in the United States as of the 1996 Presidential election. Because these machines are no longer made, the trend is to replace them with computer based marksense or direct recording electronic systems.

Marksense (Optical Scan)

Marksense systems employ a ballot card on which candidates and issue choices are preprinted next to an empty rectangle, circle, oval, or an incomplete arrow. Voters record their choices by filling in the rectangle, circle or oval, or by completing the arrow. After voting, the voters either place the ballot in a sealed box or feed it into a computer tabulating device at the precinct. The tabulating device reads the votes using "dark mark logic," whereby the computer selects the darkest mark within a given set as the correct choice or vote. Marksense technology has existed for decades and been used extensively in such areas as standardized testing and statewide lotteries.
Although marksense systems are often referred to as "optical scan," marksense technology is only one of several methods for recognizing marks on paper through optical reading techniques.
Marksense systems were used by 24.6% of registered voters in the United States for the 1996 Presidential election, and their use is on the rise.

Direct Recording Electronic (DRE)

The most recent configuration in the evolution of voting systems are known as direct recording electronic, or DRE’s. They are an electronic implementation of the old mechanical lever systems. As with the lever machines, there is no ballot; the possible choices are visible to the voter on the front of the machine. The voter directly enters choices into electronic storage with the use of a touch-screen, push-buttons, or similar device. An alphabetic keyboard is often provided with the entry device to allow for the possibility of write-in votes. The voter’s choices are stored in these machines via a memory cartridge, diskette or smart-card and added to the choices of all other voters.
In 1996, 7.7% of the registered voters in the United States used some type of direct recording electronic voting system.

Voluntary Voting System Guidelines

On December 13, 2005, the U.S Election Assistance Commission (EAC) unanimously adopted the 2005 Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, which significantly increase security requirements for voting systems and expand access, including opportunities to vote privately and independently, for individuals with disabilities.

The guidelines will take effect in December 2007 (24 months), at which time voting systems will no longer be tested against the 2002 Voting System Standards (VSS) developed by the Federal Election Commission. All previous versions of national standards will become obsolete at that time.

The voluntary guidelines provide a set of specifications and requirements against which voting systems can be tested to determine if the systems provide all of the basic functionality, accessibility and security capabilities required of these systems. In addition, the guidelines establish evaluation criteria for the national certification of voting systems.

The guidelines update and augment the 2002 VSS, as required by HAVA, to address advancements in election practices and computer technologies. These guidelines are voluntary. States may decide to adopt them entirely or in part prior to the effective date. Currently, at least 39 states use the national guidelines in their voting system certification process.

During the 90-day public comment period, EAC received more than 6,000 comments on the proposed guidelines. Each comment was reviewed and considered by EAC in consultation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the development of the final version. To view these comments and the proposed guidelines, go

United States Election Assistance Commission, 1225 New York Avenue N.W., Washington, DC 20005




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Source: Federal Election Commission; Election Assistence Commission; magazineUSA.com
Last modified: 20070820
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