Everything you wanted to know about voting machines

Brendan James
November 5, 2012

Ever since punch-card voting machines produced the "hanging chads" that led to the Florida recount in the 2000 election, Americans have been looking for new and more reliable technology to use on Election Day.

One result: The Help America Vote Act of 2002, which authorized $3.9 billion in federal funds for trading in punch-card and lever systems with either e-voting or optical scan systems. The act also stipulates that all polling places should make available a handicap-accessible voting device.

But while the country, for the most part, has moved on from the older, more unreliable machines, the new models present their own set of challenges. From shadowy conspiracy theories to genuine concerns about glitches, here's what you need to know about the machines that are supposed to make democracy work.

What kind of machines are used, and where?

Sixty percent of the country now supplies voters with optical scanners. To use them, voters shade in their choices on paper ballots (similar to how they would take an SAT test) before feeding it to the machines. These optical scanners, while not exactly a brand-new technology, are the state-of-the-art for both their accuracy in processing votes and their security against tampering.

But the same cannot always be said for the alternative, e-voting machines (direct recording electronic machines, or DREs), which are used in about 25 percent of the country. These are lined up in places like Georgia, Maryland, Utah, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Texas.

E-voting machines come in three variants: push-button machines sporting a keypad; LCD touch-screens; and machines that use a rolling wheel to select and confirm a vote onscreen. All of these register votes on an electronic ballot. The absence of a paper trail, which is preserved by the optical scanners, has caused concerns since the inception of the machines.

VerifiedVoting.org provides more specifics on the history and different forms of voting technology, including a map showing the brand of election equipment for different states.

Does anyone still use punch-card or lever systems?

Four counties in Idaho still use punch-card ballots, while none in the country has used lever machines since 2010.

What are some of the examples of problems with e-voting machines?

In 2004, electronic votes were wiped from machines in New Jersey and North Carolina. But the much more ominous worries over the limits and liabilities of e-voting became clear in 2008, when a study by Princeton University revealed how easy it would be to hack into the Sequoia brand of e-voting machines (used chiefly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Louisiana) to steal votes.

More disturbing is this quote from Roger Johnston, a computer science expert leading a subsequent test on Diebold AccuVote e-voting machines just last year: "I've seen high-school science fair projects that are more sophisticated than what is needed to hijack a voting machine." His crash course in vote-jacking went as follows: The equipment was hacked by inserting a very inexpensive homemade device into the voting machine, which could be remotely controlled from afar. In practice, when the voter attempted to mark her e-ballot, the hacker could intercept and alter the vote from one party to the other.

Despite these widely reported studies, as well as HBO's 2006 documentary "Hacking Democracy," there has not yet been any effort to address these sorts of problems with either the Diebold machines or the smaller malfunctions of e-voting machines more broadly. (It is, of course, also true that there have been problems with fraud and machine error with more traditional forms of voting technology.)

The software for the e-voting machines is proprietary, which means that only the companies that manufacture them have access to their design, which they have kept from examination through extended legal battles.

What's with stories about Tagg Romney owning voting machines?

In a tight election, even the most tenuous connections can be spun quickly into a web of conspiracy. That's not to say that there aren't genuine links between very enthusiastic Mitt Romney donors and Hart InterCivic, a large supplier of voting machines in Ohio—but the theories attempting to prove that Tagg Romney, the Republican nominee's eldest son, owns Ohio voting machines overstep the boundaries of available evidence.

As Rick Ungar reported in Forbes, two Hart InterCivic board members made direct donations to the Romney campaign; furthermore, several directors of H.I.G. capital, which owns Hart, are major money-raisers for the campaign. (Some of them were in the room during Romney's infamous "47 percent" remarks.)

But there is no evidence that Tagg Romney's private equity firm, Solamere Capital, invests, owns or controls voting machines made by InterCivic. The closest one gets by following the money is to find Solamere investing in H.I.G.'s medical fund, BioVentures, a wholly separate fund, as reported by Eugene Kiely and Lucas Isakowitz at Factcheck.org.

What will superstorm Sandy's impact be on voting in the Northeast?

In the back of people's minds, Sandy's effect on voting in the Northeast has been a quiet but pressing concern. As Thad Hall, a University of Utah political scientist and researcher for the Voting Technology Project, told the Associated Foreign Press, "Some voters will literally not be able to vote because they will have been evacuated from their local polling place and there is no provision for remote voting."

The voting machines themselves will be left operating on batteries, not an encouraging prospect as Election Day drags on longer in areas where debris and destruction have complicated the process and organization.

In New Jersey, the state is allowing residents to combat the aftermath of the storm by voting through absentee ballots by email or fax. And state officials in New York have said that residents may be granted an extra day to vote if Tuesday's turnout is below 25 percent.