Voting Technologies


U.S. jurisdictions use a variety of technologies for casting and counting ballots. These include electronic direct recording equipment (DREs) such as computer touch screen systems; optical scanners; push-button and lever machines; punch card systems; and hand counting. Elections can be conducted entirely by mail. It is possible to count mail and absentee ballots by several means: by optical scanners or card readers; by manually entering them into touch screen, push-button or lever machines; or by a hand count. Some jurisdictions are experimenting with Internet voting. Some jurisdictions count absentee votes with the same equipment used at polling stations; others use different equipment to tally absentee ballots.

The Federal Election Commission publishes voluntary standards for voting equipment and software.  About 30 states follow these standards.  Most states have a certification process for voting equipment.  The Secretary of State or other state election official typically certifies equipment and software, and counties (or other jurisdictions) purchase equipment from the certified list.

Electronic Direct Recording Equipment (DRE)

Electornic DREs resemble Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs). Voters either touch the screen or press buttons to indicate their choices. When the polls close, some of these machines print out vote totals. They also have removable memory cartridges that contain all of the voting data, and some of the machines come equipped with modems that automatically send the results by phone to an election office. Electronic DREs are not suitable for counting absentee or mail ballots.

Models include the Sequoia Pacific AVC Edge, Global AccuTouch and the ESS Votronic. Riverside (CA) bought touch screen equipment for all precincts at a cost of $3,000 per machine.

Optical Scanning

Optical scanners use forms similar to standardized tests or some lottery tickets. Voters fill in bubbles or connect arrows on the ballot to indicate their choices. The ballot is fed into the optical scanner, which scans and reads the ballot much the way a fax machine scans a page. The scanner stores the vote totals. Optical scanning can occur at the precinct level or at a central location. At the precinct level, the scanner is the ballot box: after scanning, the ballot passes automatically into a sealed ballot box. Vote totals are transmitted by phone or modem, or memory cartridges are removed from the machines and delivered to the election offices.

With central scanning, after the polls close, ballots are transported from the precincts to a central location. There, election workers feed the ballots into scanners, which read and count the ballots.

Optical scanning is suitable for use with absentee and mail ballots.

Precinct-scanning units include the Sequoia Pacific Optech Eagle, the ESS 100, and the Global Accuvote. These machines cost roughly $3,000 � 4,000. They scan 2,000 - 3000 ballots per hour. Ballots are fed manually. Central scanning units include the Sequoia Pacific IV-C and the ESS 550. The machines cost $40,000 - $50,000 and scan 20,000 ballots per hour. They use automatic feeders. For large jurisdictions, central scanning has the potential for significant cost saving compared to precinct scanning and touch screens.

Push Button and Lever Direct Recording Equipment (DRE)

The machines are mechanical or electronic equipment. Voters pull levers or push buttons next to the candidates for whom they wish to vote. The machines tend to be old and bulky, and their use is declining. These types of equipment are not suitable for absentee or mail ballots.

Models include the Sequoia Pacific AVC Advantage, the Danaher Controls Shouptronic, and numerous older lever models.

Punch Card

With a punch card system, the voter uses a stylus to punch out tiny circles or rectangles in a card. This is the old IBM computer card system. The cards are fed into a mechanical card reader that detects which holes have been punched and records the vote totals. The actual voting equipment is very cheap. Voters just need a stylus or even paperclip to punch out the holes, but most jurisdictions using punch cards provide the voter with a frame that makes it clear which hole corresponds to which option. The use of punch card systems is declining, as the number of companies that can service card readers decreases. New punch card systems use equipment that, like a precinct scanner, secures ballot in a box after voters casts them.

Punch cards can be used with absentee and mail ballots.

Mail Balloting

With mail balloting, voters receive ballots in the mail, indicate their votes on the ballots, and mail them back to the election office. Election administrators count the ballots in a centralized location. Optical scanners or punch card readers can count the ballots, or election workers can manually enter the ballots into a DRE such as a touch screen or push-button machine. Jurisdictions can also count mail ballots by hand. Oregon conducts all statewide and legislative elections by mail, as do other jurisdictions throughout the United States.

Hand Counting

Some jurisdictions count ballots by hand.


Legislation to explore the use of Internet voting has been introduced in Minnesota and the state of Washington, and the Secretary of State of California convened a task force which made recommendations to the legislature on Internet voting. The Department of Defense has conducting a pilot project to allow overseas residents, both military and civilian, of Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Utah to vote by the Internet. Consideration of Internet voting has raised concerns about security, fraud and voter coercion.