Voters in the recent Iowa caucuses and Tuesday's New Hampshire primary will rely on paper ballots as they have for generations. In the very next primary on January 21, South Carolinians will vote with backlit touch-screen computers.
In an age of electronic banking and online college degrees, why hasn't the rest of the nation gone the way of the Palmetto State? The reason is simple and resonates with the contentious debate that has yet to be resolved after at least 15 years of wrangling over the issue of electronic voting. No one has yet figured out a straightforward method of ensuring that one of the most revered democratic institutions—in this case, electing a U.S. president—can be double-checked for fraud, particularly when paperless e-voting systems are used.
Electronic balloting has yet to reconcile two conflicting needs in the polling place: Any election must proceed under a cloak of anonymity. But if a recount is required, election officials must go back and reproduce a verifiable audit trail. No account number ties the transaction to an individual, as it does when he transfers cash from bank checking to savings. What tangible proof then is there that all 5,734 votes cast really registered at the elementary school on Main Street? "If you have a machine collecting and recording votes with an electronic ballot box there's no way to go back after the fact and see if the machine made a mistake, whether through malice or simple software error," says Stanford University computer science professor David Dill and founder of Verified Voting Foundation, a nonpartisan election watchdog.
Electronic voting has its share snafus to prove the case of the doubters. In 2006 voters in Florida's 13th Congressional District election learned firsthand that there is little recourse when e-voting election results are in dispute. That year Democratic nominee Christine Jennings, who lost the election by 369 votes to Republican Vern Buchanan, claimed that 18,000 ballots went uncounted in the district. Without a paper trail to follow, the matter was left to the courts and Buchanan held onto the seat.
"They couldn't audit the election because there was no way to evaluate the machine's accuracy," Dill says. "It's like you have a worker who's doing your accounts who is very smart but not very trustworthy. If you have some independent way of checking the numbers he started with against the numbers he finished with then you don't have to trust him. You can double-check his work and catch any major errors. That's what we need for voting machines."
How do you cast your ballot?
Voters can cast their ballot in a variety of ways, depending on the method adopted by their election district. This includes paper ballots; punch cards; two types of touch-screen electronic voting systems (one that prints out a receipt verifying your vote and one that does not); optical scanners used to digitize paper ballots; or some combination of these.
New Hampshire, like nearly two thirds of the country, has a paper ballot system that voters mark and turn in to election officials who count the ballots either by electrical scanners or by hand. With the optical-scan approach, if the ballot is not filled out properly or is unreadable, the scanner will not accept it but the voter can fix it before leaving the polling place, Dill says.