Skip to content

How are Ballots Read?

May 3, 2019

First, it is important to note that both hand-marked paper ballots and machine-marked paper ballots are highly secure and auditable methods of casting a vote.

How do we know, you ask? Well because pre-election testing and post-election auditing provide a testable and auditable method to verify that both forms of ballots are programmed and counted as intended.

Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty

Barcodes exist on both hand-marked paper ballots and machine-marked paper ballots and those barcodes are used in the very same manner in both scenarios to count votes. For example, when tabulating a hand-marked paper ballot, the system works like this:

  • On a hand-marked paper ballot, there is a master barcode along the left edge of the ballot and the top and/or bottom of the ballot.
  • When a voter hand marks the oval next to candidate Betsy Brown, for example, and inserts that hand-marked paper ballot into a tabulation machine, that tabulation machine is not reading the name, Betsy Brown. In fact, the tabulation machine does not recognize the text, Betsy Brown, at all. Rather, the tabulation machine first recognizes, through digital imaging technology, that an oval has been filled in. Then it uses the master barcode on the ballot to determine the grid coordinates of that filled-in oval.
  • In this example, if the grid coordinates of the filled-in oval are “fifteen down, nine across,” the tabulation machine then queries the database that resides on the master media (typically a USB stick) that has been inserted into the tabulator. In essence, the tabulation machine asks the database on the master media, “what candidate’s name is associated with fifteen down, nine across?” The database, which has been pre-programmed and tested by the county/city election office, then tells the tabulation machine that “fifteen down, nine across” corresponds with Betsy Brown. At that point, the tabulation machine records a vote for the name Betsy Brown.

To confirm, even though Betsy Brown is the name printed by that hand-marked oval, it’s the name Betsy Brown in the database that gets recorded.

Coordinates - A set of values that show an exact position.

Machine-marked paper ballots work the exact same way, except that the voter marks their ballot with a machine instead of a pen. Here’s how:

  • When the voter chooses Betsy Brown on the touch screen, the marking device prints out a paper record that shows the text Betsy Brown along with a barcode that contains the ballot coordinates of “fifteen down, nine across.”
  • When that paper record is inserted into the tabulator, it performs the same routine as it does with the hand-marked paper ballot. It reads the barcode, which reveals the grid coordinates of “fifteen down, nine across” and then it queries the database on the tabulation machine (which is the same tabulation machine that counts the hand-marked paper ballot) asking which candidate name is associated with those grid coordinates.
  • The database then reveals to the tabulation machine that “fifteen down, nine across” corresponds to Betsy Brown. At that point, the tabulation machine records a vote for the name Betsy Brown.

Just as is the case with hand-marked paper ballots, the tabulation machine is only looking for the grid coordinates

Tabulator - A device that records and counts votes.

Barcodes are simply a group of lines and spaces that represent specific characters — in the case of both hand-marked and machine-marked paper ballots, these lines translate to numbers that are grid coordinates and those grid coordinates correspond to a candidate name in a database.

(Psst… even tabulation systems that utilize Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for that matter use a barcode to count the vote. Here’s why: It is possible that there could be two separate and distinct candidates, both named Betsy Brown, who are running for different offices on the same ballot. The system cannot use OCR to read “Betsy Brown” and record a vote reliably because it would have to know for what race the vote for “Betsy Brown” should be counted. Thus, even when OCR is used a barcode is still utilized to tell the tabulation machine for what race Betsy Brown should receive a vote.)

How are Votes Counted?

Below is a high-level step-by-step outline comparing the voting process and how votes are recorded and counted when voting via a hand-marked paper ballot versus a machine-marked paper ballot.

Step 1: BALLOT CREATED

Election officials enter their election information in a secure, hardened application that in turn generates the layout for either a hand-marked or machine-marked paper ballot and creates the database that resides on the tabulator used to record and count the votes for both ballot types.

Step 2: CHOICES MADE


Hand-marked paper ballot: Voter makes choices by filling in the oval voting target next to the name of the candidate.

Machine-marked paper ballot: Voter makes choices by touching the candidate’s name.

Step 3: CHOICES CONFIRMED


Hand-marked paper ballot: Voter examines marked paper ballot to confirm their choices.

Machine-marked paper ballot: Voter examines marked paper ballot to confirm their choices.

Step 4: BALLOT CAST


Hand-marked paper ballot: Voter inserts their marked paper ballot into the tabulator.

Machine-marked paper ballot: Voter inserts their marked paper ballot into the tabulator.

Step 5: CHOICES RECORDED AND COUNTED


Hand-marked paper ballot: Tabulator identifies filled ovals and then reads the master barcode on the ballot to determine the grid coordinates of those filled-in ovals and records the votes accordingly.

Machine-marked paper ballot: Tabulator reads the barcode on the ballot to determine the grid coordinates of the candidate’s name. These grid coordinates in the barcode are identical to the grid coordinates on the hand-marked ballot. The tabulator reads the grid coordinates and tabulates accordingly.

Bottom Line

ALL tabulation machines that count paper ballots use a barcode to properly and accurately count the vote. The security of each method of voting is confirmed by election officials during pre-election tests and in post-election audits.