The Impact of Computer Technology on Voting

By Heather Sterling 


            The November 2000 presidential election uncovered all of the fallacies associated with many ballots and voting machines.  As the world watched for over a month, as ballots were counted and recounted, and as lawsuit after lawsuit was filed, it became evident that a new voting precedent was needed.  Pregnant and dimpled chads were the joke of many counties in Florida, and angered citizens of the United States called for electronic voting.

            This paper details the history of computer influences in voting, from the earliest punch-card machines, to the much-talked about concept of e-voting.  The following sections describe the three stages of computer insertion into the process of voting.  In particular, we will examine the direct replacement of hand-counting in voting, the enhancement of voting techniques due to computer automation, and the new functionalities that computer technology brings to voting.  In summary, some basic arguments about the need for online or e-voting will be presented. 

First Stage: Direct replacement of current activity 

            Democracy is as old as the Greek city-states, and oral voting has been used in the Western world from the dawn of Athens up until the 19th century.   According to Douglas Jones, associate professor at the University of Iowa, the first paper ballots began to replace oral voting in Rome in 139 BC, and in the United States beginning in 1629.  The first modern paper ballot, called the ìAustralian ballot,î were used in Australia beginning in 1858 [Jones].  An example ballot is depicted in Figure 1.  One major dilemma with these ballots was preventing them from reaching general circulation where they could be copied and used to stuff the ballot box.  Another problem was that many citizens were needed to count all of the ballots in the voting box, and frequently these citizens had a political bias.


Figure 1. A sample paper ballot from an 1893 election [Jones].



With the invention of early tally machines, paper ballots fell out of fashion.  The machines eliminated the need for human vote counters and provided a more accurate and objective method of voting.  By the turn of the century, the mechanized practice slowly began to replace paper ballots and human vote counters.  Two types of voting methodologies which incorporated the tally machines include punch-card voting and marksense technology.  

Punch-card voting was widely in use during the 20th century and became the dominant method of voting by the 1980ís [Jones].  This technique requires voters to form a chad on the ballot next to the selected candidateís name using a small punching device.  These dimpled ballots, shown in Figure 2, are fed into computer-tabulating machines, and stored in case a recount is necessary.  According to Kevin Bensor, ìFulton and De Kalb Counties in Georgia were the first jurisdictions to use punch cards and computer tally machines when they adopted the system for the 1964 primary election.î  Punch-card machines remain popular today; in the 1996 presidential election, some variation of the system was used by 37.3% of registered voters in the United States [Bensor]. 


Figure 2. A typical punch-card ballot with dimples, or ìchads.î


A popular alternative to the punch-card machines is the marksense ballot, which utilizes op-scan technology.  Users darken in circles next to candidatesí names, and the paper is fed through computer-tally machines.   Marksense systems were used by 24.6% of registered voters in the United States for the 1996 Presidential election, and their use is on the rise [Bensor].

            With these voting methods, the process of voting still took roughly the same amount of time.  Citizens still had to physically mark their choices, as they did using a paper ballot.  Each ballot still had to be inserted into a computer-tabulating device by someone working at the polls.  This process did not take quite as long to perform as it took for a human to hand-tally the ballot since the machines could handle many pieces of paper at once.  However, even though people were not required to maintain a vote count, people working at the voting booths were still needed to feed the ballots into the electronic machines.

            The benefits of these new automated techniques did not save much time or manpower.  However, they did provide increased anonymity and privacy for the voter and greater accuracy by minimizing human error.  By eliminating the human element in vote counting, they also helped prevent falsified vote results and other forms of fraud.   

Second Stage: Enhancement of activities 

With the United States population approaching 80 million at the turn of the 19th century, new methods had to be found that accelerated ballot counting.  Political machines were becoming increasing powerful in large cities, and the existence of voting fraud was indisputable.  To solve these problems, several types of voting technologies were developed which essentially eliminated the need for humans to touch ballots.  Two such machines included the lever machines and the direct recording electronic voting machines, or DREís.

The lever voting machines began to replace conventional paper vote counting in the early 20th century.  They provided a level of objectivity and privacy that was not available with human vote counters.  A typical machine, shown in Figure 3, was a private booth set up at voting outlets.  When the voter shut the curtain, the levers would reset and allow the individual to depress levers of their chosen candidate.  After the voter was finished, reopening the curtain locked in their vote and registered it on an odometer mechanism [Bellis].  This system prevented a user from accidentally under- or over-voting because the curtain could not be opened until one vote per office was successfully placed.


Figure 3. A lever machine.


A recent advancement in computerized voting technology is the advent of DRE machines, first used in 1978.  Essentially a DRE is a microcomputer implementation of a lever machine.  According to Kevin Bensor,

ìThe voter directly enters choices into electronic storage with the use of a touch-screen, push buttons, or similar device. An alphabetic keyboard is often provided with the entry device to allow for the possibility of write-in votes. The voterís choices are stored in these machines via a memory cartridge, diskette or smart card and added to the choices of all other voters.î

Approximately 7.7% of registered voters used some type of DRE system in the 1996 general election [Bensor].

            The lever machine and DRE machines eliminated the need for human ballot counters.  The only function people served was to verify the identity of the voting individuals and to answer questions that voters had about the process.  By mechanizing vote counting, people were no longer needed to oversee the entire process.  These machines enhanced the voting process by preventing some forms of fraud.  The only way to really rig results was to go into the booths and repetitively vote, which is much more conspicuous than stuffing the ballot box.  The machines also increased productivity and sped up the voting process by incrementing counts instantaneously, instead of in batches.  This provided immediate results which could be used in statistical analyses while the election was still occurring.  Local news teams could broadcast information about the elections, providing people the updates they desired.  It streamlined the process because no paper was involved that needed to be fed into a machine and read; the tallying and voting process was done simultaneously.


Figure 4.  DRE machine.

Third Stage: Ability to perform new functionality

            All of the current voting technologies employed at the voting booths use computerized mechanisms of some variety.  Electronic polling places are the next logical step, and eliminate the need for any paper or mechanical devices.  They will also be the stepping stone to online voting. In fact, some universities, unions, and companies already use electronic voting exclusively.  Several states ran pilot programs on Election Day 2000 to test e-voting as a valid process.  These states included Arizona and California, in which voters voted twice, once using a traditional method, and another time using an ATM-like touch screen computer, similar to the one shown in Figure 5 [Bensor].  The electronic voting went off with few problems, and most people found it to be self-explanatory.  Many military personnel were also involved in a program where online ballots were cast.  American University professor Rick Semiatin, says that the optimal voting system is an electronic one with redundancy, or automatic back-ups, built into it [Rowell].  Semiatin remarked that, ìIn California, which has a very good vote counting system ó a lot of it is electronic. Ö Thereís a name, thereís a bar and you push on the section where the name is. And itís very clearly definable.  Those systems tend to work the best. This stuff with the punch-card ballot in Florida is ridiculous.î [Rowell].


Figure 5. A touch-screen voting interface [Jones].


The ridiculousness of the election results of Election Day 2000 may sway states towards electronic methods in the future.  The advantages of e-voting would include streamlining the voting process, preventing ballot errors and confusion, and increasing national voter turnout [Bensor].

Computers would streamline the voting process because they do not use paper ballots or bulky machinery.  Computers are relatively easy to locate and set up in any typical polling location.  Voting software could be ported to various operating systems and various machines, providing flexibility to different precincts.

As we saw from last yearís election, even several miscounted votes can mean a dramatic difference in outcome.  In current punch-card systems, feeding 100 ballots through the counter 7 times gives 7 different results [Bensor].  In addition, chads and op-scan forms require interpretation rules.  Chads can be partially punched through, dimpled, or hanging.  Circles on op-scan forms can have marginal marks or marks that were not erased completely.  Computerized voting that does not involve reading darkened circles or punched out paper is therefore a much more accurate alternative. 

Preventing ballot confusion can also be enhanced by computers.  For example, links to the candidatesí websites or party websites can be provided to refresh the voterís mind if they forgot a candidateís position on a particular issue.  A photograph of the candidate could also be included to help citizens who cannot see or comprehend English well.  In addition, the computer could provide a summary of the selected nominees to guarantee that the voter entered his or her intended choices.

            Citizen participation in the voting process in America is not something to brag about.  According to the Federal Election Commission data, in 1996 only 49% of the voting age population of America voted in the general election.  According to the US Census Bureau, "time constraints are now the single biggest reason Americans, who are registered, give for not voting."  Online voting could solve this problem quite easily by allowing people to vote anytime, anywhere.

Currently, absentee ballots in the United States are done with paper ballots.  Voters must request a ballot from their local precinct office, and then mail or fax back their vote.  This procedure is inconvenient to many people, and dissuades many out-of-state voters from going through with the trouble of voting.  With online voting, citizens could vote from anywhere.  Employees would not have to leave work, parents would not have to drag their young children out of the house with them, and college students would not have to request out-of-state ballots.  People without computers could simply go to the regular voting precinct location and use the computers provided there.  Volunteers could be on hand to assist people with any questions they had. 

Overview: The Future of Voting           

Many people are skeptical of whether people unfamiliar with computer technology could successfully vote, and this reason has prevented computer voting from taking off.  Speaking from personal opinion, however, many of us that are accustomed to computers find the lever machines archaic and clunky to use.  In fact, any device has a learning curve and some people will find it difficult to use.  Some people may find computers hard to use, but most people have interacted with some computerized device before.  Almost everyone in America has at some point used an ATM machine or a pay-at-the-pump interface. Almost everyone in American has at some point browsed the Internet or sent email.  So why is it that we still are clinging to antiquated, error-filled technology when there is an obvious solution?  More than half of Americans who cast ballots in Tuesday's presidential election are estimated to have done so using technology developed in the 19th century ó mechanical hand levers and punch cards. A million or more others voted by paper ballot [USA Today]. The following excerpt from shows a typical example of how other countries are utilizing computers to expand the voting process: 

ìIn Brazil and the Netherlands, many voters already use an ATM-like machine to cast their vote. Using these machines, voters gather at their traditional voting precinct and cast their ballots in a kiosk, just like the one they have always used. This kiosk retains the privacy that voters want. Voters carry in a cartridge and place it in the e-voting computer, which displays the candidates on a touch-screen, liquid-crystal display. Unlike paper ballots, these machines display information about each candidate aside from their party affiliation, and might even display the candidate's photo so that there is less confusion over identity. A voter makes their choice for president by touching the screen. Once the voter makes a selection, a new list of candidates, for the next office on the ballot, appears on the screen. If a voter makes a mistake, such as selecting two candidates for the same office, the computer points out this error and allows the voter to correct it. Once the voter has completed the ballot, the computer allows the voter to review his or her choices before returning the cartridge to an election official." [Bensor]

If Brazil and the Netherlands can successfully implement these technologies, there is no reason why the United States cannot modernize the voting process by the next general election. 


            Voting technology has seen major developments since the dawn of democracy.  Various voting machines have been developed seeking to automate ballot counting and to preserve the integrity of the individual vote.  Recent times have seen older voting technologies tested and many have failed.  Further automation needs to become commonplace in order to increase ballot count accuracy, eliminate ballot recounting, and to increase voter turnout.  In the future, we will see more touch-screen and Internet-related avenues explored.  Hopefully, by the next general election in 2004, we will all be able to vote from the comfort of our own home, knowing that no chads are left dangling. 


Bensor, Kevin. (December 2000) "How e-voting will work." [WWW Document]. Retrieved October 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web:


Jones, Douglas W. (June 2001) "Problems With Computer-Based Voting Systems" [WWW Document]. Retrieved October 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web:


Bellis, Mary. "The History of Voting Machines." [WWW Document]. Retrieved October 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web:


Rowell, Erica. "Man vs. the Machine" [WWW Document]. Retrieved October 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web:


USA Today(Associated Press). (November 13, 2000) "Voting Technology: Stuck in the past" [WWW Document]. Retrieved October 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web:


Garrettson, Rob. (November 13, 2000) "U.S. on road to online voting" [WWW Document]. Retrieved October 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web: