How to Choose the Best Voting System

Choosing the Best Voting System:  Optical Scanners and Paper Ballots

Now that the PA Dept of State has directed counties to implement new voting systems with paper records, and federal funding is available, counties have the challenge of choosing secure, verifiable, reliable voting machines to ensure that citizens have faith in our elections.  Citizens should urge elected officials to choose optical scanners that count voter-marked paper ballots.  While it may seem old fashioned in a high-tech world, election integrity experts recommend this voting system as the most effective way to achieve security, accuracy, verifiability, accessibility, and resiliency.  Below are several reasons that these systems are best.

Election Security Experts Recommend

  • Voter-hand-marked paper ballots
  • Counted by optical scanner voting machines
  • With ballot marking devices for universal accessibility
  • Regular post-election audits of paper ballots to verify the machine count

Hand-Marked Paper Ballots

Voter-marked paper ballots put as little technology between the voter and their vote as possible, preventing the possibility of errors due to machine malfunction, mis-calibration, or hacking.  Paper ballots are reliable.  Even if power is lost and machines fail, voters can still vote.  By contrast, machines in York and Dauphin counties failed in the 2018 primaries, and some voters left the polling place without voting.  Paper ballots are intuitive and easy to use, in contrast to electronic voting machines which may have confusing interfaces for casting write-in votes or “no votes”.  Simple solutions are best, because some voters are not technology savvy.  For example, some voters leave the booth before pressing the button to enter the votes on the machines.  Most importantly, paper ballots provide a paper record that can be recounted in close elections and audited to detect machine problems.

Optical Scanner Voting Machines

There are many benefits to optical scanner machines (“opscans”), which would be used to quickly count the hand-marked paper ballots and tally election results.  Scanners can retain digital images of the paper ballots to facilitate recounts, audits, and adjudication.  Scanners can also be used to count absentee and provisional ballots.  Opscans would reduce purchasing costs for new machines, because polling places could purchase just one optical scanner and one accessible ballot-marking device per precinct, as compared to precincts which now require several voting machines each.  Opscans could improve voter trust in elections, because there is a paper ballot record of each vote, and routine post-election audits of paper ballots will detect errors.

Better Ballot Verification

Voter-marked paper ballots are the best system for accuracy of voter intent, because the votes are verified by the voter as they are written down.  Optical scanners offer helpful features such as alerting voters to problems like over-votes on their paper ballots.  In comparison, machine-marked ballots have verification weaknesses.  Studies have shown that when voters’ ballots are marked by machines, voters do not carefully review and verify the paper receipts printed by the machines.  Machine-marked ballots also often use barcoded votes, which a voter cannot read or verify.  Voter-marked ballots are preferable, because they reduce the chances of both human and computer error.

Optical Scanners: Shorter Lines and Less Expense

Machine-marked ballots can cause logjams when voters take a long time deciding how to mark their ballots on the machines.  By contrast, optical scanner paper ballot systems can shorten lines while requiring fewer machines, because many voters can fill out their paper ballots at the same time without the use of a machine.  When a voter finishes marking a paper ballot, it only takes a few seconds to feed it into the scanner, which then deposits the ballot into a locked box for security.  If a precinct has long lines, poll workers could easily set up more privacy cubbies for more voters to mark paper ballots at the same time.  By contrast, if a precinct uses only machine-marked ballots, poll workers could not add more voting machines to shorten the waiting lines.  A further benefit of optical scanner paper ballot systems is that they require fewer machines per precinct, which means fewer taxpayer dollars spent on purchasing machines, and less time and energy spent on machine maintenance, calibration, testing, and delivery.

Universal Accessibility:  One Optical Scanner and One Ballot Marker Per Precinct

Currently, no single voting machine model exists which can meet all accessibility needs.  Universal accessibility requires that options be offered to enable accessibility for people with various types of disabilities.  Ballot-marking devices (BMDs) are the most accessible voting method for voters with vision loss or certain mobility challenges.  Hand-marked paper ballots are the most accessible voting method for voters with screen sensitivities due to concussions or other conditions, as well as voters with certain mobility challenges.  BMDs make foreign language accessibility easier, while hand-marked paper ballots are more accessible for Amish voters who may not use electricity.  Some elderly voters may prefer BMDs for vision reasons, while other elderly voters may prefer the simplicity of paper and pen.  To achieve universal accessibility, more than one type of voting system is needed per precinct.

Some vendors are pushing BMDs for every voter in order to sell more machines, but the sole use of BMDs would prevent universal accessibility and increase the costs of machine purchasing, maintenance, calibration, testing, and staffing due to a larger number of machines.  Counties should tell vendors that they want to test both the optical scanner and the accessible BMD that is compatible with the optical scanner.  Ideally, hand-marked paper ballots and BMD-marked paper ballots should look the same to protect ballot secrecy.

To provide universal accessibility and ensure that all voters can vote privately and independently, counties should:

  • purchase an optical scanner and an accessible ballot marking device for each precinct,
  • ensure thorough and equal training of poll workers on both voting methods,
  • ensure that voters are given the option to vote on the system that is most accessible for their needs.

Paper Ballots Make Election Audits and Recounts Possible

Election results can be verified by auditing hand-marked paper ballots.  This will result in greater security and trust in our elections.  Risk Limiting Audits (RLAs) can be used to validate results using a small statistical sample of the paper ballots, sometimes less than 1%.  RLAs should be performed routinely after every election.  Fortune 500 companies use similar practices for quality control.  Elections are the foundation of our democracy, and as such, deserve a comparable level of scrutiny.  In the event of a close election, voter-marked paper ballots also allow for independent recounts. The audit process in Pennsylvania is described on the Department of State’s Post Election Audits page here:

Durability, Security, and Resilience

Machines need to be durable and physically secure.  They might take a beating while being shuffled around the warehouse and transported to polling places, so they should be more like a rugged ATM machine and less like a delicate flat screen TV.  They must be secure enough to store in polling places before election day.  All access panels and data ports should have locks and include tamper evident features.  There is no such thing as perfect security, so the system needs to be resilient and able to detect, monitor, respond, and recover from problems and security threats.

Beware Hidden Costs

Determine the total costs of ownership when evaluating systems.  Avoid systems which use basic supplies that are difficult to obtain, expensive, or proprietary (thermal paper, printer ink, batteries, etc.).  Ask about warranties, service contracts, and the details of training, service, and repairs.