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poll book, does a far better job of identifying a person than a poll worker glancing at a picture that might be outdated.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.”
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.