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What is Electronic Voting?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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When voters use electronic systems to cast their votes, this is known as electronic voting or e-voting. A number of electronic voting systems are used worldwide, from optical scanners which read manually marked ballots to entirely electronic touchscreen voting systems. Supporters of electronic voting systems believe that these systems are more accurate and efficient than traditional paper ballots, while critics are concerned about the security of e-voting. Some critics actually support electronic voting on principle, but they want to see the development of better systems which protect the rights of voters.

For citizens, voting is a relatively straightforward process. A citizen marks a ballot to indicate his or her preferences and then turns the ballot in to a voting official. Voting officials must carefully control their ballots to ensure that they are not spoiled or damaged, and then they must quickly and accurately tally the votes collected. Electronic voting systems are designed to make things easier for election officials by collecting and processing votes so that election results can be obtained instantaneously.

Many communities in the United States are converting to electronic voting to comply with legal mandates. Electronic voting is supposed to be easier for voters with disabilities, and entirely electronic systems like touchscreens can be programmed to display information in different languages, or to deliver voting choices in audio for visually impaired voters. Many of these mandates are also designed to streamline the voting process in the hopes of preventing disenfranchisement.

Using electronic voting machines is usually easy for voters. In the case of an optical scanning system, a voter is given a paper ballot to fill out, along with a special marking pen. After filling out the ballot, the voter feeds it into an optical scanning machine which reads and tallies the marks. A touchscreen voting system presents voting choices on a screen which the voter can touch to register preferences.

There are some serious flaws involved in electronic voting. Many of these machines do not have a paper trail, for example. This makes it difficult for voters to verify that their votes were registered correctly, making voting precincts vulnerable to fraud. Electronic voting also has variable error rates, and it can be difficult to obtain information about voting machines from their manufacturers, since these companies want to retain proprietary secrets to protect their share of the market. Critics of these systems hope that these flaws can be addressed to make electronic voting safe, secure, and reliable.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Hayes — On May 15, 2014

It’s great to hear an intelligent discussion of electronic voting. You’d be surprised how many not-so-intelligent ones there are (or maybe you wouldn’t).

People can sometimes be closed minded, particularly if they have some vested interest in being that way. Speaking of interests, let me be clear about mine from the start – I work for a company that provides electronic voting technology and services.

We call ourselves the world leader because we've facilitated over 3,500 fraud-free elections around the world, more than any other organization.

I don’t mean to give you a sales pitch. I'm just letting you know there is already some great voting technology here – and that actually it’s been around for some time (we ran our first election in 2004).

Our touchscreen voting machines produce a paper audit trail as well as store and transmit electronic votes. So not only are they completely secure – thanks to 256-bit encryption and redundancy features – they’re also demonstrably so, because you can compare the electronic count to the paper count to see if there are discrepancies. The beautiful thing about our system is that, in the over 2.3 billion votes the company has processed, there never have been discrepancies.

Techies are perhaps quite rightly obsessed with security. And many security experts take the view that anything can be hacked, because under lab conditions that’s probably true. Yet consider the fact that our voting machines are only connected to the outside world for a few seconds and it’s no wonder our CEO believes that our system is effectively tamper-proof.

Even if someone could alter the counts in one machine (and it’s hard to see how even that would be possible without us noticing), would that be enough to swing a vote? And how would you change the electronic count in a machine or a server without it showing up as different from the paper count?

Electronic voting supported by a paper trail allows for far more transparent, auditable and accurate elections. There needn’t be any human error or spoiled votes and you can get results with a couple of hours.

It’s a great way to build trust and technology also means elections become more accessible, helping disabled voters cast their ballots independently. With these benefits, we’re seeing more and more countries taking an interest. Ironically, it’s not the big Western democracies leading the charge. Look at the elections in the Philippines and in Venezuela and in particular what The Carter Center (the world’s leading independent election observation organization) has said about them.

@Treeman: You mention machine malfunctions. Failure rates in our machines are low. For example, in Ecuador’s sectional elections, our most recent deployment, we had a failure rate of 0.2 percent. This doesn’t mean that the machines recorded the vote wrong (this simply isn’t possible because voters get a paper receipt telling them how they voted); it just means that, for whatever reason, the hardware didn’t work.

Again, using Ecuador as an example, this electronic voting pilot involved 1,121 machines with a further 120 on standby to replace ones that didn’t work (which, at 0.2 percent of 1,121 machines, is two).

@kentuckycat: In answer to your question, if the machine froze, you would simply use another. Each polling location generally has several polling stations. And we always supply back up machines, just in case.

@jcraig: Touchscreens are exactly what we’ve been offering since 2004. They’re great because they’re so user-friendly and it’s impossible to spoil a vote. Perhaps most importantly, as this article, points out, our machines print paper voting receipts which can be used to audit the electronic count.

By matthewc23 — On Nov 29, 2011

I think the idea of the scanning ballot machine is probably the best overall. First off, the machine is really simple and cost effective to manufacture and buy. I think the second benefit is that you can get the results tallied quickly and easily by the computer. On top of all that, though, you also have the physical ballot sheets in chase there is a cause for needing to count the votes manually.

In all honesty, a manual count of the votes in a national or even state election is usually unnecessary, but I come from a pretty small town where some of the elections are decided by a matter of a few votes. In those cases, it would be important to have the cards to recount them and ensure that the computers were right. I would hate to be in an election and lose by a few votes and have to think that I possibly lost because of a problem with an electronic voting machine.

By jcraig — On Nov 29, 2011

Sure, there might be some potential electronic voting problems, but you still have to consider the alternative. Does anyone really want another one of the fiascoes that happened during the 2000 election? Electronic voting issues exist, but I would still trust a computer to keep track of the votes more efficiently than a human keeping tally on a sheet of paper.

The place where I vote uses the scanning machines. I am curious if there is any electronic voting software that uses a touch screen or if that technology is in the works? I'm sure if they don't already exist, it is just a matter of time until we start seeing them.

By kentuckycat — On Nov 28, 2011

@TreeMan - Yeah, I don't think the vast majority of polling places in the US would be subject to corruption, but that is definitely not the case in a lot of other countries.

I know in a lot of the recent elections in the Middle East there have been accusations of the votes being rigged. In those cases, it would probably be more effective to have the electronic voting equipment, since then people couldn't just put several ballots in the box. Obviously, there are still ways around it, though, so the problem really needs to be stopped at the source if you want to fix those issues.

The thing I was wondering, too, was what happened if you were in one of the electronic voting booths and the thing froze on you. It is still basically a computer, after all.

By TreeMan — On Nov 27, 2011

My voting precinct has an electronic ballot machine, and I have always wondered a lot of the same things this article mentions.

I don't think anyone in my area is going to cheat the system and try to rig the machines, but it seems like there would always be the possibility of a voting machine malfunctioning and losing the votes. Do they have some sort of mechanism in place that backs up the votes that were taken in case the main hard drive or whatever it is becomes corrupted?

Also, what does the article mean when it says the voting machines have variable error rates? Surely that doesn't mean that if you vote for one person it will tally a vote for another, does it?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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