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Officials should move from punch card ballots to electronic and optical scan systems, UC Berkeley research shows
01 October 2001

By Janet Gilmore, Media Relations

Berkeley - Electronic and optical scan voting systems did the best job of recording and tabulating votes cast in the 2000 presidential election, while punch card ballots performed the worst, according to a new University of California, Berkeley, report.

The finding, released today (Monday, Oct. 1) by the campus's Survey Research Center and its Institute of Governmental Studies, found that, among the nation's 100 largest voting jurisdictions, which served 40 million voters in the 2000 election, electronic and optical scan machines outperformed all other machines, producing fewer overcounted or undercounted votes.

The report, "Counting all the Votes: the Performance of Voting Technology in the United States," concludes that "concerted efforts should be made to move away from Votomatic-style punch card systems to other, more appropriate ones. In most cases this will mean either optical scan or electronic systems."

Henry Brady, a UC Berkeley professor of political science and public policy, directed the study, which was launched in the wake of calls for a recount of Florida votes cast during the Bush-Gore presidential contest. Many Florida counties used punch-card style systems in 2000.

Brady and a team of researchers sorted through presidential election results from 38 states and 2,219 counties, rejecting unreliable data and cross-checking results using sophisticated statistical methods.

"Optical scan and electronic systems perform better than other systems across all U.S. counties and especially in large counties," said Brady, "and the newer versions of both systems give voters feedback that 'checks their work' before they submit their ballot."

Brady also noted that touch-screen electronic voting systems allow individuals to select a ballot translated into a foreign language. Some of these systems also allow disabled persons to vote by listening to recordings.

The UC Berkeley study differs from a Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Project report issued in July 2001 that concluded that electronic systems, though improving, might be harder to use than other voting systems. The UC Berkeley study relies on the most recent data and finds no evidence that electronic systems are harder to use.

In addition to considering voting system performance across all U.S. election jurisdictions, the report also addresses their performance in the nation's 100 largest counties. Optical scan and electronic systems, which produced an overcount or undercount of votes less than 1 percent of the time, received the top rating of "good." Lever machines, which had such problems 1 to 2 percent of the time, were rated "adequate." Punch card ballots, with such problems 2 to 3 percent of the time, were rated "worrying."

UC Berkeley researchers noted, however, that all systems will perform less effectively when they are not properly implemented by election officials or precinct workers at the local level. In addition, some voting systems may work well in certain counties due to that population's long history using a particular system, due to demographic characteristics of a particular county, or due to the particular variety of the system used.

Electronic systems, the newest of voting systems, are now used in more than 300 counties across the country. Voters push a button or touch the face of an ATM-type machine and choose a candidate.

Optical scan systems, in which an infrared or other scanner records the markings on a paper ballot, are used in more than 1,300 counties and more than 40 states.

Mechanical voting machines such as lever systems no longer are manufactured but are heavily used in seven states - most of them on the East Coast. These machines, developed in the 1890s, involve large displays of the entire ballot and small levers next to each choice. The voter flips a small lever to choose a candidate and, once finished voting, pulls a large lever, which counts each vote.

Paper ballots, the oldest and simplest method, are used in about 300 mostly small, rural counties and townships. A voter simply places a check next to the name of a preferred candidate on a piece of paper. All votes are counted by hand.

In addition to Brady, the study was co-authored by UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies researchers Justin Buchler, Matt Jarvis, and John McNulty. It was funded, in part, by Sequoia Voting Systems, an Oakland-based manufacturer of punch card, optical scan and electronic voting systems.

Additional information:

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