Whether a voter marks their ballot with a pen or by using a machine, using paper ballots in elections is the best way to increase confidence in our nation’s election process.
ES&S systems used to count paper ballots are highly secure and fully auditable. How do we know? Because pre-election testing and post-election audits provide a testable and auditable method to verify that the ballots are counted as the voter intended.
Let’s take an in-depth look at how machines count ballots.
Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty
Barcodes exist on traditional oval hand-marked paper ballots and on simplified paper ballots that voters mark using a machine. Both types of ballots are read by the same tabulator in the same manner to count votes. For example, when tabulating a traditional paper ballot, the system works like this:
- There is a master barcode along the left edge of the ballot and the top and/or bottom of the ballot. That master barcode helps the machine recognize the location of a marked oval.
- When a voter hand marks the oval next to candidate Betsy Brown, for example, and inserts that paper ballot into a tabulation machine, the tabulator does not read the name “Betsy Brown.” Rather, the tabulator recognizes, through digital imaging technology, the position of the filled-in oval. Then, it uses the master barcode on the ballot to determine the grid coordinates of that marked oval.
- In this example, if the grid coordinates of the filled-in oval are “column nine, row fifteen, sheet one, side one” on the ballot, the tabulator then queries the database for the candidate with the assigned number “091511” and records a vote for Betsy Brown.
To confirm, even though “Betsy Brown” is the name printed by that hand-marked oval, the tabulator does not read the human-readable text but rather the machine-readable position of the filled-in oval to count the vote for Betsy Brown.
When a voter marks their paper ballot using a machine, the tabulator counts the voter selections in the exact same way. Here’s how:
- When the voter chooses Betsy Brown on the touch screen, the marking device prints out a simplified paper ballot that shows the text “Betsy Brown” along with a barcode that contains the numerical value of “091511.”
- When that paper ballot is inserted into the tabulator, it queries the database for the candidate with the assigned number “091511” and records a vote for Betsy Brown.
Just as is the case with hand-marked paper ballots, the tabulator only looks for the barcode assigned to the candidate selected by the voter.
Barcodes are simply a method of representing data in a machine-readable form. In the case of paper ballots, this relates to the position of an oval or a group of lines and spaces that represent specific characters.
(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 races 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 voters mark their ballots using a pen or a voting machine.
Step 1: BALLOT CREATED
Election officials enter their election information in a secure, hardened application that, in turn, generates the layout for either a traditional or simplified 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
Traditional paper ballot: Voter makes choices by filling in the oval voting target next to the name of the candidate.
Simplified paper ballot: Voter makes choices by touching the candidate’s name.
Step 3: CHOICES CONFIRMED
Traditional paper ballot: Voter examines marked paper ballot to confirm their choices.
Simplified paper ballot: Voter examines marked paper ballot to confirm their choices.
Step 4: BALLOT CAST
Traditional paper ballot: Voter inserts their marked paper ballot into the tabulator.
Simplified paper ballot: Voter inserts their marked paper ballot into the tabulator.
Step 5: CHOICES RECORDED AND COUNTED
Traditional paper ballot: The tabulator reads the barcode and counts the voter’s selections.
Simplified paper ballot: The tabulator reads the barcode and counts the voter’s selections.
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.
Watch our video, “How are Ballots Counted?” to learn more.”