On Voting Machines

Simple voting machine may be best

Oct 31, 2003

Computerized voting machines are expensive and, many suspect, too easily subject to election fraud. There is probably no solution to this problem, much less one that voters will trust. It seems there is only one reason to use a mechanized voting machine instead of a simple ballot box: automated vote counting. But, ballot voting does have a valuable characteristic: it provides a hard copy of the votes. A good voting solution would take into account these two very important considerations and, in addition, other concerns such as legible ballot design, multi-lingual capabilities, and affordable price.

I would like to suggest that we go back to ballot voting, using a paper ballot that can be fed into an automatic ballot counter. The counter would be essentially a scanner that not only counts ballots, but validates them as well. Here is how voting station preparation and the voting itself would work:

Voting officials design paper ballots according to existing acceptable practices; the ballots can be printed in as many languages as required (even on the spot, as needed). Each voting station would provide ballots, pens, foldable booths (a table with a curtain around it), and one scanner. Each voter, after filling out a ballot, would walk from the booth to a table with the scanner; either the voter or an assistent would feed the ballot into the scanner. The scanner both validates and counts ballots. If the ballot is invalid (e.g., two selections for president were marked instead of one), the voter would have the opportunity to try again with a new ballot.

This approach provides a hardcopy of the votes; it provides automated counting; it provides instant ballot validation (new); it is simple and inexpensive, requiring only one inexpensive scanner machine per polling station; and, subjectively speaking, it provides a very tangible voting process in which people gain confidence from physically filling out a ballot, personally submitting it to validation and counting, and knowing that there is no computer that can reverse the result of a poll in the blink of an eye.

The technology is already here: scanner/validator/counter. In fact the machines used by schools to grade standardized multiple choice tests use precisely the technology envisioned. But surely a modern printer or scanner sized machine can be developed for the purpose. Price? $200-$500, depending on the bells and whistles.

Carlo Moneti
Syracuse, NY


[2004-9-23] Other thoughts:

  • The tally/OCR machine must be "configurable", but should not be a fully programmable computer. (safer and cheaper)
  • Counting votes by machine is important for ballot validation, not for counting accuracy or speed.
  • Counting is distributed accross more than 100k voting stations (for national elections); most voting stations receive only a few hundred ballots each; so hand recounts are not difficult or slow.
  • Not having state and national running totals makes it hard for operatives to know where and how much they have to cheat.