Optical scan voting system

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Election technology

An optical scan voting system is an electronic voting system and uses an optical scanner to read marked paper ballots and tally the results.


While mark sense technology dates back to the 1930s and optical mark recognition dates to the 1950s, these technologies were first explored in the context of standardized tests such as college entrance exams. The first suggestion to use mark sense technology to count ballots came in 1953, but practical optical scanners did not emerge until the 1960s. The Norden Electronic Vote Tallying System was the first to be deployed, but it required the use of special ink to mark the ballot. The Votronic, from 1965, was the first optical mark vote tabulator able to sense marks made with a graphite pencil.[1]

Types of optical scan systems[edit]

Marksense systems[edit]

An Optech Eagle scanner sold by Sequoia Pacific Systems.

The oldest optical-scan voting systems scan ballots using optical mark recognition scanners. Voters mark their choice in a voting response location, usually filling a rectangle, circle or oval, or by completing an arrow. Various mark-sense voting systems have used a variety of different approaches to determining what marks are counted as votes. Early systems, such as the Votronic, introduced in 1965, had a single photosensor per column of marks on the ballot. Most such tabulators used analog comparators that counted all marks darker than a fixed threshold as being votes.[2] The Optech line of scanners developed by Business Records Corporation and sold by both Election Systems & Software and Sequoia Voting Systems is a current example of this technology.

The use of digital imaging technology to view the ballot does not necessarily imply more sophisticated mark recognition. For example, the Avante Vote-Trakker simply counts the number of dark and light pixels in each marking area to determine if the mark counts as a vote.[3] More sophisticated mark recognition algorithms are sensitive to the shape of the mark as well as the total overall darkness, as illustrated by the ES&S Model 100, introduced in the mid 1990s.[4]

An example of a ballot for a Diebold/Premier AV/OS scanner.

The ballot can be immediately tabulated at polling stations allowing for voters to be notified by the voting system of voting errors such as an overvote and can prevent residual votes. One such method can display a digital image of the ballot being submitted and allows the voter to review how their ballots are being read.[5] This is known as a precinct-count voting system. Alternately the ballots can be collected in the polling station and tabulated later at a central facility, known as central-count voting system.

Electronic ballot marker[edit]

An electronic ballot marker, the ExpressVote, made by Election Systems & Software. This prints an narrow ballot containing a summary of votes cast in both human-readable and bar code form.

An electronic ballot marker (EBM) or ballot marking device (BMD) is a device that can aid voters in marking paper ballots. Typical ballot markers include a touch screen and a variety of assistive devices to serve the needs of voters with disabilities.

In 1991, Julien Anno and others filed a patent application for a device resembling a modern electronic ballot marker, with an emphasis on multilingual ballot presentation, not accessibility.[6] The Jites and Digivote systems used in Belgium are similar to this, although they use magnetic stripe cards instead of bar codes to record the ballot.[7] Eugene Cummings filed a patent for an electronic ballot marker specifically designed as an accessible voting interface for optical-scan voting systems in 2003.[8] This machine, the Automark, saw widespread use in the United States.[9]

Digital pen voting systems[edit]

Digital pen voting systems use ballots on digital paper which is recognized by a small camera in the pen while it is marked by the voter.[10][11] The ballots are collected in a ballot box and the digital pen is returned to an election official for tabulation.

This technology was expected to be used in the 2008 Hamburg state elections, but eventually was decided against due to controversy surrounding the accuracy of voting tallies.[12][13]

The technology was first used by the town of Menstrie, Clackmannanshire Scotland in their 2006 local community council elections.[14]

Security and concerns[edit]

Optical scan voting systems are a form of document ballot voting system, meaning that there is a tangible record of the voter's intent (a paper ballot). Like traditional paper ballots these are subject to electoral fraud and ballot stuffing.

One form of wholesale fraud possible with optical scan voting systems is during the recording of votes. Douglas W. Jones of the University of Iowa states that if a potential attacker were to gain access to the voting system configuration files, they would be able to "credit one candidate with votes intended for another." He found these files are exposed in the computer system used to prepare the election, making them vulnerable to anyone setting up the election. The files are then transferred to the voting system using removable media, and "anyone with access to these media could potentially attack the system."[15]

Another form of wholesale fraud is during tabulation. Possible attacks have been demonstrated by Harri Hursti[16] and the University of Connecticut.[17][18][19]

If an attacker is able to obtain a blank ballot (by theft, counterfeit, or a legitimate absentee ballot) the attacker can then mark the ballot for their chosen candidates and convince (through intimidation or bribery) a voter to take the pre-marked ballot to a polling station, exchange it for the blank ballot issued and return the blank ballot to the attacker. This is known as chain voting[20]

Some suggest many of these well-known vulnerabilities can be effectively mitigated. Ballot stuffing may be resolved with incorporation of randomly generated ballot identifier for each paper ballot and capturing digital ballot images of scanned ballots as electronic audit.[21]

Tabulation fraud and wholesale tampering can also be prevented by adding a cryptographic verification mechanism. This approach is mathematically based, and thus invariant to software attacks or breaches in chain-of-custody of the paper ballots.[22] One such system is Scantegrity.

Benefits of optical scan voting machines[edit]

Recounting optical-scan ballots by hand in Minnesota.

An advantage of these systems is that the voters don't have to learn to use a voting machine. Physically able voters can simply use pen and paper to mark their intent. Some disabled voters could use a machine to print a voted ballot, which can then be fed into the optical scanner along with all the other ballots, thus preserving the secrecy of their ballot.

Optical scan voting systems can allow for manual recounting of ballots and random auditing of the election equipment that reports the results to election officials. Statistically relevant auditing can serve as a tool to detect or deter malfunction or fraud. In the instance where a candidate is entitled to a recount, a full hand recount of paper ballots can determine the accurate, or final results. Officials responsible for maintaining the veracity and accuracy of elections such as election commissioners or county auditors, can randomly select a voting block such as a precinct to verify the optical scanning voting system tabulation and report is accurate by doing a hand count against the machine's results. By performing such an audit, election officials can confirm the system is in good standing. Or, if an error in the counting is discovered during a random audit of the machine(s), a full recount can be conducted, and the system evaluated for the source of failure or fraud.

An advantage compared to DRE voting machines is that even if the optical scanner fails, voters can still fill out their paper ballot, and leave it to be scanned when the machine is fixed or replaced with a spare. This also allow many more people to simultaneously vote than would be the case with fully computerized voting.

Using more than 80,000 optical scanners during its last two elections (2010 and 2013), the Philippines has reduced the time to process votes and announce results. The Philippine elections constitute the largest deployment of optical scanners in the world.

Machine manufacturers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Douglas W. Jones, On Optical Mark-Sense Scanning, Towards Trustworthy Elections, Lecture Notes on Computer Science Vol. 60, Springer, 2010. (author's copy)
  2. ^ Gerald Holzer, Norman Walker and Harry Wilcox, Vote Tallying Machine, U.S. patent 3,218,439, Nov. 16, 1965.
  3. ^ Kevin Kwong-Tai Chung, Victor Jun Dong and Xaoming Shi, Electronic Voting Method for Optically Scanned Ballot, U.S. Patent 7,077,313, Jul. 18, 2006.
  4. ^ Steve Bolton, Tim Cordes and Herb Deutsch, Method of Analyzing Marks Made on a Response Sheet, U.S. Patent 6,854,644, Feb. 15, 2005.
  5. ^ "Precinct-Based Optical". Avante International Technology, Inc. Retrieved 15 May 2016.
  6. ^ Julien Anno, Russel Lewis, and Dale Cone, Method and System for Autonated Voting, U.S. Patent 5,189,288, issued Feb. 23, 1993.
  7. ^ Expert Visit on New Voting Technologies, 8 October 2006 Local Elections, Kingdom of Belgium, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Nov. 22, 2006.
  8. ^ Eugene Cummings, Ballot Marking System and Apparatus, U.S. Patent 7,080,779, issued Jul. 25, 2006.
  9. ^ Douglas W. Jones and Barbara Simons, Broken Ballots, CSLI Publications, 2012; see Section 5.5, pages 111-115, and Section 9.3, pages 218-221.
  10. ^ New Generation of Voting Machines in Germany Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Ulrich Wienser, Hacking the Electoral Law, Page 37ff
  12. ^ "Politik & Verwaltung". hamburg.de. Retrieved 15 May 2016.
  13. ^ Heise.de: Aus für den digitalen Wahlstift (German)
  14. ^ Electronic voting 'world first', BBC News September 27, 2006
  15. ^ EXAMPLE ATTACK DOCUMENTATION: Optical Scan Configuration File, Douglas W. Jones Sept 15, 2005
  16. ^ "VoteTrustUSA - Florida: The Harri Hursti Hack and its Importance to our Nation". Retrieved 15 May 2016.
  17. ^ A. Kiayias, L. Michel, A. Russell, A. A. Shvartsman, with the assistance of M. Korman, A. See, N. Shashidhar, D. Walluck. Security Assessment of the Diebold Optical Scan Voting Terminal (UConn VoTeR Center and Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Connecticut, October 30, 2006)
  18. ^ "Reports". archive.org. 10 May 2008. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  19. ^ "Center for Voting Technology Research". archive.org. 31 May 2018. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  20. ^ Chain Voting, Douglas W. Jones Aug 26, 2005
  21. ^ Comparing Tabulation of Paper Ballots using Optical Scanning Electronic and Tabulation of Direct Recording Electronic with Voter Verified Paper Ballots, AVANTE International Technology, Inc. March 1, 2007
  22. ^ Mahoney, Matt (September–October 2008), "Flawless Vote Counts: Cryptography lets voters confirm that their ballots were tallied correctly", Technology Review