Modernizing Voting Equipment: Guidelines for Ensuring Security and Reliability

Incompatible voting equipment can prove an insurmountable obstacle to adopting ranking ballot voting systems such as instant runoff voting and choice voting.  Concerns about voting equipment and election administrations effectively eclipsed political support for legislation in Cincinnati in 1991, New Mexico in 1998 and Eugene in 2001.  On the other hand, in Santa Clara County, San Leandro and Oakland, legislation making instant runoff voting an option contingent on available equipment was passed by the voters.

It is therefore essential that reformers advocate for ballot type flexibility in legislation to fund or establish standards for new equiment and in Requests for Proposals (RFPs) when counties and states acquire new voting equipment.

Please contact the FairVote at  [email protected] if you need any assistance.

The good news is that most new voting equipment is or can be compatible with ranked ballot elections at no additional cost and that there are sound, good government reasons for such flexibility that have nothing to do with ranked ballot elections.

The clearest way to ensure equipment compatibility is to include in an RFP or legislation the following requirement:

All new voting systems purchased or leased shall be ready to implement ranked choice voting and any other ballot types in use within the United States in the first election in which the equipment is used. Particularly, systems shall allow voters to mark and have their ballots registered according to the specific needs of ranked choice voting and be able to tabulate votes according to the specific logic of ranked choice voting. If systems do not meet the above requirements, then they shall be adapted to do so within a year with no extra expense to the State of XXXX or the Counties therein.

This would not only ensure compatibility but also timeliness:  the vendor would not be able to claim that they needed additional time and money to modify software or hardware.

There are two other approaches that can be used in addition to or instead of the above one:

  1. All new paper-based voting equipment should store electronic records of each ballot.
  2. All new voting equipment should be able to accommodate all ballot types currently used in US elections.

The argument for the first provision is that it provides important security to paper-based ballots.  If a paper ballot is altered after it is cast, either fraudulently or inadvertently through routine handling during a recount, it is almost impossible to detect and correct the alteration.  An anonymous, electronic record of each ballot allows the detection and correction of any alteration to a ballot that occurs after the ballot is cast.

The second provision is a matter of prudence:  if a jurisdiction is paying large sums of money to buy new voting equipment, it should accommodate any ballot type that the jurisdiction might want to adopt in the future.  There are currently 4 ballot types in use in US public elections:

  1. Vote for 1 candidate only (plurality and runoff elections)
  2. Vote for more than 1 candidates (at-large plurality and limited voting)
  3. Give more than one vote to one or more candidates (cumulative voting)
  4. Rank candidates in order of choice (instant runoff and choice voting)

The Center submitted comments to the FEC along these lines, and leading civil rights and civic groups signed a letter on flexibility in voting equipment.  Please feel free to use the information and language in them.

Several jurisdictions, including Travis County (TX), Alameda County (CA) and Santa Clara County (CA), have included provisions on ranked ballot compatibility in RFPs that they have released. 

In Alameda County, which has deployed a touch screen system for precincts combined with optical scanners for absentee ballots, the RFP included the statement, "Each vendor must be able to specify how their proposed system will be able to address the following specific requirements." It then lists a series of questions, including:

How will the [voting equipment] manage alternative voting system such as cumulative or preferential voting?

Other questions addressed space on the ballot (there are often large numbers of candidates and measures on California ballots), allowing disabled voters to cast secret ballots, handling multiple ballot types, and the use of multiple languages on the ballot.

FairVote would be glad to provide public comments on these matters.  Please contact us if you think it's possible to include pertinent provisions in legislation or RFPs.

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