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Technology could supplant voter IDs at polls, but registration problems remain

Editor’s note: This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

New technology can make voting a very efficient matter, making it possible to verify a voter’s identity at the poll even without a photo ID.  But the new electronic wizardry does little to eliminate problems some voters face in registering to vote in the first place.

Electronic poll books, which contain computer software that loads digital registration records, are used in at least 27 states and the District of Columbia. Poll books are emerging as an alternative to photo ID requirements to authenticate voters’ identity, address and registration status, when they show up at polling places to vote.

Voting is the same, but signing in with electronic poll books is different. Poll workers check in voters using a faster, computerized version of paper voter rolls. Upon arrival, voters give their names and addresses, or in some states, such as Iowa, they can choose to scan their photo IDs.

Georgia and Maryland were the first to use electronic poll books statewide in 2005, said Merle King, executive director for the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Poll books can be used to verify voters’ identity at polling places, but voters can face the same obstacles securing official documents for the electronic books as they do in getting birth certificates, photo ID and related documents to register to vote.

Ken Kline, auditor for Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, is neutral about laws that require photo ID at the polls. But he said his Precinct Atlas, which is an electronic poll book, does a far better job of identifying a person than a poll worker glancing at a picture that might be outdated.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and his bipartisan Election Integrity Task Force proposed using poll books to connect voter registration from the state elections division and cross-reference that database with photos from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. This wouldn’t help people who lack driver’s licenses. In November, Minnesotans will decide whether to require photo ID at the polls.

From paper ballots to voting machines, the technology for elections has advanced but has been behind the curve, said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center. Now with electronic poll books, technology can verify who votes.

For the November elections, the majority of Americans’ votes still will be cast on paper ballots and counted by optical or digital scanners. Disabled voters will cast ballots either with the aid of another person or on electronic machines designed to help them. In more than 30 states, voters will have some paper record of their vote, while voters in 11 states will cast votes with no paper at all, according to Verified Voting, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that tracks machine voting and advocates for verified paper trails.

Voting machines malfunction and have been known to fail to record votes, add or subtract votes to various candidates, or simply overheat.

Though these new technologies can help verify voters’ identities and give added accessibility, no voting system to date has proved immune to problems.

Electronic poll books

Just as contacts are stored in a phone, an electronic poll book records voters on a searchable, digital list that lets poll workers retrieve and verify a voter’s name, address, birth date and political party.

In Iowa, the computer system prints labels with voter information to place on a check-in sheet. Voters are handed the correct ballot based on their precincts and party affiliation. Poll workers can immediately fix or change any information in the database.

Kline said the poll book protects voting rights and election integrity by verifying the correct precinct, expediting voting and allowing voters to easily register or change political parties on Election Day.

He created the Precinct Atlas specifically for Iowa three years ago. The Iowa secretary of state awarded $30,000 to develop the software, used by 55 percent of Iowa’s 1,700 voting precincts. Each poll book precinct has computers, printers and ID scanners. The initial technology and computer hardware costs about $1,500 to $3,000 for each precinct.

Larry Haake, registrar for Chesterfield County, Va., which includes part of Richmond, said poll books have cut down on waiting times in the county’s 73 precincts.

“Voters love it because they walk in, go to any line, get checked in quickly and are in and out. Poll workers say the same thing. You don’t get the lines backing up, you don’t have people grumbling.”

Poll books need an Internet connection, and many rural precincts don’t have wireless or dial-up Internet, said Riley Dirksen, who supervises information technology for Cerro Gordo County, where Iowa’s Precinct Atlas was created.

The federal government regulates voting machines, but doesn’t have standards or testing procedures for electronic poll books because the devices neither capture nor count votes, said Kennesaw State’s King. He sees this as a problem because poll books should be tested by someone other than the person who set up the poll book.

iPads used as ballot-marking devices

While electronic poll books run software that speeds up lines and verifies voters at polls, new hardware also helps make voting more accessible and transparent.

Oregon and Denver use iPads as ballots — Denver, for seniors and voters who have disabilities, and Oregon, for the disabled. Oregon votes by mail statewide, but election officials provided iPads for voters who would benefit from them.

Both states use software from Everyone Counts, an election technology company that provides software to ensure secure elections and has conducted elections in Chicago, Honolulu, Colorado, Utah and West Virginia. Other states are looking to Oregon and Denver to see if they can implement the new method.

So far, iPads aren’t being used to verify a voter’s identity. Amber McReynolds, Denver’s director of elections, said her agency tested a voter database on iPads, but based on screen size and usability, the agency preferred laptops or paper for poll books.

Disabled voters who live in Oregon’s 1st Congressional District used Apple-donated iPads first. More than 200 voters used the iPads for the November and January special election. The pilot program went so well, every county now has an iPad for future elections.

Once a voter indicates his or her choices, the ballot is printed, so there is paper proof of the vote. Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown said her state was the first to use an iPad for elections.

The iPads meet the federal requirements for voters who have disabilities. Voters can enlarge text for easier reading, use headphones to listen to a computer voice read the ballot and in Oregon, voters with cerebral palsy can use their breathing to control the device.

“It’s a very adaptable tool,” Brown said. “A couple of the citizens that I watched vote loved the iPad technology, even if they haven’t used a computer before. It’s so simple that kids can use it, babies can use it.”

The city and county of Denver followed. Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson applied to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office for a $12,900 Help America Vote Act grant for seven iPads and printers to use at residential centers.

McReynolds said when she went to voting sites, she saw that once people got the hang of the delicate touch needed to operate the iPad, they voted easily and liked the technology.

Vonsella Scott, who lives at Denver’s Porter Place Retirement center, used an iPad for the first time when voting in the June primary.

“I have a little difficulty in writing, due to a stroke, and it just was easier for me,” said Scott, 84. “It was enlarged if you needed it and explained very well.”

Not only are the iPads more portable, but they are cheaper than their large, clunky voting machine counterparts.

“An iPad, these are about $400 or $500. Whereas a voting machine could cost $4,000 or $5,000,” McReynolds said. “There’s a significant difference in price and these can be utilized for other functions as well. It’s a step in the right direction to expand the use of technology in elections.”

Ballot TRACE

Another new technology, a tracking system for mail-in ballots, can increase ballot security and calm voters’ worries by texting or emailing voters the location of their ballot every step of the way.

An often-heard concern about mail voting is the uncertainty of the location of the voter’s ballot. Johnson, the Denver clerk and recorder, said she wants to make elections more transparent and says that can be done with new mail-voting technology launched in 2009: Ballot TRACE, which stands for Tracking, Reporting and Communication Engine.

“Our No. 1 call that we received in our call centers was ‘Where’s my mail ballot?’ or ‘Did you get it?’ or ‘Is it coming?’ or ‘Has it been counted?’ ” McReynolds said.

Using Denver-based software company i3logix and working with the U.S. Postal Service, the elections department offered voters a way to know where their vote is at all times — from the first printing to when it’s counted.

On each ballot envelope is an intelligent mail barcode (IMB), that the post office can scan to register when the ballot is about to be sent to the voter or when it has returned.

Voters can sign up for the tracking service to notify them of their ballot’s location via text message or email. McReynolds said about 12,000 voters are currently signed up. They will automatically receive text messages about when their ballot will arrive, reminders to send it back and updates on when the vote is processed. That technology is available to people who have access to a computer or cell phone.

Denver is the only city with this type of automatic service, said Steve Olsen, executive vice president of i3logix. Oregon also offers a tracking service for voters, but they must log in on the secretary of state’s website.

The technology helps McReynolds’ office stay accountable for the ballots, she said, because it lets her know if problems arise, such as if the post office hasn’t sent a stack of ballots to a certain ZIP code. She said the service can prevent errors, such as voters forgetting to sign ballots, the elections department needing to see an ID or undeliverable ballots.

Olsen said there have been few problems, and those get corrected quickly. “Generally when problems do occur, it’s when the printer mixes up a barcode with a data file,” he said.

The cost is based first on a setup fee, and then processing registered voter data. Olsen said the service costs a nickel a voter.

“The same comments kept coming up – voters don’t have any confidence in the mail, they feel like it’s being corrupted,” he said. “It’s technology that’s been around — we just put them together.”

Michael Ciaglo and AJ Vicens of News21 contributed to this article.

AJ Vicens was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow this summer for News21.

About this project: “Who Can Vote?” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

 For the complete Voting Rights in America project, visit here.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/15/2012 - 08:52 am.


    “Upon arrival, voters give their names and addresses” – That’s what they do now. That’s not verification.

    “… digital list that lets poll workers retrieve and verify a voter’s name, address, birth date and political party.” – Why is party affiliation part of the record? Why is that relevant? It seems to me that a database field of “political party” is too convenient for those who want to delete selected records for nefarious reasons.

    “Poll workers can immediately fix or change any information in the database.” – Uh, not a good idea unless the voter identifies himself first with a photo ID. Otherwise you’re just editing fraud.

    What we need are scannable photo ID cards that are issued when the person registers to vote. Then we can be sure that only legal citizens will be able to cast a vote. I’ve been issued four such scannable photo ID cards for various organizations in the past year alone (Costco, the Rez, the U and a client company). It’s fast, cheap, and tamper-proof. But any database that can be maintained by politicans or partisan poll workers should never be considered as part of the system.

    It’s sad, but we wouldn’t have this problem if there wasn’t such a history of dead people, felons or non-citizens voting in this country and races being decided by a handful of votes.

    • Submitted by Justin Adams on 08/15/2012 - 09:28 am.

      Poll Books

      Verify – ver·i·fy

      1: to confirm or substantiate in law by oath.

      Verify is exactly what we do now.

      Many states require voters to declare a political party affiliation for purposes of primary elections – not everyone gets multiple columns on the same sheet of paper – some jurisdictions (outside our state) print seperate GOP and Democratic ballots, so party affiliation is an essential piece of information.

      Photo ID does not prevent fraud. Are you unaware of instances where individuals have used faked identification to evade age restrictions on alcohol sales, for example? People would commit fraud, and risk jail time and large fines to do so, will find a way to do so whether it requires counterfit documents or not. And unlike, say, insider trading, there is no benefit that accrues to a person who commits voter fraud. Which is probably why it virtually never happens.

      As a person who worked a 16 hour day yesterday to ensure that eligible voters could cast their ballots yesterda, I have to take exception to your charachterization of poll workers as partisan and the implication that they would be complacent or conspiratorial and corrupt and contemptable like “politicians.” Poll workers do not deserve your ire.

      We don’t have “this problem”. The only real problem with our voting system in this country is the systematic disenfranchisement of minorities by way of voter roll scrubs that use an insufficient number of unique identifiers to verify whether John Smith (but usually not smith, usually rodriguez or jackson), aged 59, from Tampa, is the one who is a felon or is the one who is the veteran of two foreign wars. Perhaps both mr. smith’s are removed from the polls, but white wealthy mr. smith with paid time off work can go get the documents he needs to be reinstated while black poor mr. smith doesn’t enjoy this privilege, especially since states are illegallty strking names from voter rolls so close to elections that anyone who finds themselves with an administrative hurdle (like no birth certificate on hand) to overcome cannot re-register in time. That is the only actual, real problem, of which there is actual real evidence, in our voting system.

      Voter ID laws are vote suppression laws plain and simple.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/15/2012 - 09:44 am.

      Hey, Dennis, why not implant a RFID or tattoo on a number or barcode tied into a giant database?.

      Any card out there can be stolen, hijacked, copied or modified.

      The most readily apparent parts of a thumbnail sized photo (glasses and hair) change pretty easily.

      You’re greasing the slope into big-brother state.

      Keep pushing, and pretend you want freedom.

    • Submitted by Andrew Richner on 08/15/2012 - 10:30 am.

      re: Sorry

      For the sake of clarity:
      – The blurb at the bottom indicates this is a nationally-published series. Since most states DO record party affiliation in their poll books, presumably “party affiliation” was included as a datafield in hypothetical electronic poll books here because they are summarizing proposals across numerous states. Since Minnesota doesn’t currently require that information, I wouldn’t expect that moving to electronic poll books here would add that data.
      – Poll workers can fix or change the paper poll books already, it’s just not immediately applied to the database because the database is off-site; the article is talking about how an electronic system would make it easier to make changes because the poll workers can access the database directly instead of indirectly, which they do already
      – It should also be noted that something like the electric poll book system described in the article was proposed as part of the original Voter ID legislation that was vetoed by Governor Dayton
      – As this series previously pointed out, the United States is one of the only democracies where elections are run by partisans
      – The database already exists and is already run by poll workers, partisans, and bureaucrats

      The fact that elections are being decided recently by a small margin should be evidence that fraudulent voting is NOT widespread. The recent nail-biters would not be ideal for any group with the power to influence election results since unpredictable variations in voter turnout could have swung any of the recent close elections in either direction. If any group really has the power to manipulate the results of elections, they are terrible at it. There’s no saying who fraudulent voters are voting for. Could be lizard people.

      I would hypothesize, however, that part of the logic on the part of pro-ID Republicans is that you would HAVE to be a criminal or swindler or part of a slim minority of crazies to vote for a Democrat, so the fact that Democrats win elections, by that logic, is enough to demonstrate that fraud must be occurring. “Democrats are winning,” seems to be the only piece of evidence presented that voting fraud is not already being addressed by current law, though, and that is not a rational reason for adding a potentially burdensome requirement to the right of franchise.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/15/2012 - 09:25 am.


    I think sometimes these kids at news21 just bite off more than they can chew. Oregon uses a mail-in ballot system, they don’t go to a polling place to case their votes.

    • Submitted by Max Hailperin on 08/15/2012 - 06:36 pm.

      Don’t throw stones

      Sometimes Paul Udstrand may also bite off more than he can chew. The article clearly states that Oregon uses a mail-in ballot system. It also explains that the iPads are made available to disabled people to make completing those ballots more accessible.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/15/2012 - 09:39 am.

    Even if fraud is a minor issue…a rare occurance…

    I suppose we could make tattoo artists happy by making embedded ID on the wrist – paid for by the state,yes – to qualify one as a politically correct registered voter?

    It’s ‘tradition’ after all…history speaks for itself on this one – and all that follows , once a state demands, regulates who votes; who can officially enter the voting booth on the right…who takes the exit path to the left?

  4. Submitted by Dana DeMaster on 08/15/2012 - 10:37 am.

    Political Party Question

    Dennis, I believe in many other states voters register with a party and cannot vote in the primary elections of the other party. This wouldn’t matter in a general election with candidates of more than one party running against each other. It would be used mostly in primary elections.

  5. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 08/15/2012 - 06:51 pm.

    A couple clarifications

    (1) I’m sure there was some misunderstanding here: “Poll books need an Internet connection, and many rural precincts don’t have wireless or dial-up Internet, said Riley Dirksen, who supervises information technology for Cerro Gordo County, where Iowa’s Precinct Atlas was created.” I visited Cerro Gordo County myself during their primary election (at the gracious invitation of Ken Kline, the County Auditor) and observed their use of the Precinct Atlas electronic poll books. I am quite sure that this system is capable of operating either with or without an internet connection, though some of the more inessential features require the connection. (In fact, the first version of the system never used a connection; the connection-reliant features were added subsequently.) Some of those rural precincts without connections lie within Cerro Gordo County; for that reason, some precincts were connected in the election I observed and some were not. I think what Mr. Dirksen must have said was that some other forms of poll book need an internet connection; he was presumably explaining why that isn’t the form of poll book they use.

    (2) The following sentence is only correct if the context is understood: “So far, iPads aren’t being used to verify a voter’s identity.” The sentence appears in context of a discussion of Oregon and Denver and is presumably true in that limited context. But looking nationally, we can see that various counties in Missouri are using iPads as electronic poll books, running the Poll Pad software from Know iNK.

  6. Submitted by Mark Ritchie on 08/16/2012 - 01:10 pm.

    Clearing up some mis-information

    There is a lot new technology coming into elections administration that can be transformative. But it is important for information about this to be accurate. We do have an excellent proposal on how to use existing photographic databases for visual verification purposes here in Minnesota but our approach does not, as this article states, leave out people who lack drivers’ licenses.

    First, our proposal includes both an electronic pollbook option and a paper pollbook option. In the zero cost “paper” option we would just print the photos available from Drivers and Vehicle Services onto the regular rosters. It would take a bit more ink but not much.

    Local governments could choose if they wanted to use the higher tech epollbooks or the low tech paper but it would still work the same. Photos of all registered voters who had current licenses, permits and state issued IDs would be available for visual verification by pollworkers — either on the epollbook or printed on the roster. These photos available from DVS go back at least 12 years so it would include anyone who had given up their licenses over the past decade ago. Of the 84,000 current Minnesota voters without a driver’s license or state ID a large number are older and their pictures are still be in the system because they have only recently given up driving. But for anyone not in the system (older folks who quit driving 20 years ago or never had a license for example) their picture would be added to the system via a digital camera at the polling place. This photo can be easily compared to the rest of the database in real time (wherever there is cellphone service) using free photographic comparison software. For 18 year olds just getting registered for the first time it would be the same process – just take their picture, cross check it, and complete the process.

    This proposal is almost zero cost (the cameras will cost something) and zero disenfranchising – even if you lost your wallet on election day you would already be in the system and you will not be denied the right to vote just because you gave up driving and do not have a birth certificate because you were born before the 1940s.

    Another benefit to this approach is that it cannot circumvented by any of the tens of thousands of fake IDs carried by younger voters – these fake ones are not in the system. And illegally obtained valid IDs that have been obtained by individuals who want more than one ID or license (perhaps they lost their original license due to multiple DUI convictions) can be weeded out using new digital security software.

    The other small clarification needed on the information provided about Minnesota is that on the ballot this fall is a comprehensive election constitutional amendment that makes changes in everything from election day registration and absentees voting to how our servicemen and women and other serving overseas participate. It includes the creation of a new system of voting called provisional balloting and requires state-issued photographic identification for in-person voters. Since the actual language of the proposed amendment is never shown to voters it is important for readers to know this so they can seek out accurate information on what is going to be on the ballot.

    Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie

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