When voting system activists in the U.S. managed to get many paperless electronic voting machines replaced a few years ago with optical-scan machines that use paper ballots, some believed elections would become more transparent and verifiable. But a spate of problems with optical-scan machines used in elections across the country have shown that the systems are just as much at risk of dropping ballots and votes as touchscreen voting machines, either due to intentional manipulation or unintentional human error. A new election system promises to resolve that issue by giving election officials the ability to independently and swiftly audit the performance of their optical-scan machines. Called Clear Ballot, the system is patterned in part after an auditing system that was used in California in 2008. It uses high-speed commercial scanners made by Fujitsu, as well as software developed by the Clear Ballot team, which includes a former developer who worked under Ray Ozzie to create Lotus Notes.
The system has been tested in several Florida counties over the past year, as well as in Connecticut and New Hampshire. It will have its greatest test, however, in the upcoming presidential election, when it will be used to audit election results in seven Florida counties, as well as in two counties in New York. “It’s the first-ever large-scale verification of elections cast on paper ballot anywhere,” says Clear Ballot CEO Larry Moore, a former vice president at Lotus.
Ballots are first scanned in voting machines made by the vendors before they’re scanned a second time in the Clear Ballot Fujitsu scanner. The Clear Ballot counting software, which sits on a laptop connected to the Fujitsu scanner via USB cable, then processes the ballot images to produce results that can be compared against the vendor machine results.
The software allows election officials to quickly identify ballots that may be causing a discrepancy – such as ones in which voters filled in ovals incorrectly or insufficiently – and pull up ballot images and other visual displays (.pdf) so that election officials can make judgment calls about the voter’s intent and whether a particular mark should be counted as a vote.