Democracy 101: The Machinery Behind Election Day

Democracy 101: The Machinery Behind Election Day

5:18pm Nov 03, 2016
A map of North Carolina divided according to the voting equipment used by each county. Credit: North Carolina State Board of Elections (

The general election is right around the corner, and in our series Democracy 101, we’ve been breaking down issues central to the way our election system works - things like the electoral college, polls, and poll watchers. And throughout it all we’ve been talking about voting. But maybe you’re wondering how exactly a vote is cast. 

In order to understand our current voting technology, it’s important to go back to the 2000 election – Bush vs. Gore. You're probably thinking hanging chads, butterfly ballots, a Florida recount, and more. 

Congress didn't want that to happen again, so they passed what’s called the Help America Vote Act in 2002.

“The Federal government went through and allocated a lot of money to the states to improve election technology in the country,” says Veronica Degraffenreid with the North Carolina State Board of Elections. This money helped North Carolina counties buy new voting equipment. Today, there are two main types of voting machines used in the state: optical scan and direct record electronic voting machines.

Optical scanning involves filling in bubbles corresponding to your choice on a paper ballot. A machine then scans your responses. Direct record electronic voting machines display a ballot on a touchscreen where you select your choices.

North Carolina is still using the same machines purchased in the early 2000s after the Help America Vote Act. And as some critics have pointed out, the age of the machines could be a potential liability. Kim Zetter is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California. She’s written about voting technology for WIRED.

"Most of us don’t keep our laptop or desktop computers more than three to five years, right? We’re always replacing our machines and after about three years, we tend to think that our laptop or our desktop is pretty out of date," Zetter says. "At the very least we upgrade the operating system. And that’s not what’s happened with voting machines.

The State Board of Elections officials know that dated technology isn’t ideal. But Degraffenreid says the integrity of the machines is intact due to what’s called logic and accuracy testing. It's done in the weeks before an election.

“There are processes in place that the counties will go through to ensure that those ballots are coded correctly," she says, "that they’re being tabulated correctly, and that the results are being aggregated correctly throughout the system, so it’s an end-to-end test.”

When North Carolina does upgrade, which will be in the next few years, the state will move to using optical scan machines only. Zetter says this is a good model because there’s a paper trail that can be used for an audit. 

"Voters can actually have a great influence on what election officials purchase," she adds. "It was because of concerned voters and activists, and political scientists and computer scientists, because of the noise that they made, that’s what got us more secure voting systems (HAVA), that’s what got us the paper trails, that’s what convinced many election officials to move over to optical scan systems."

Zetter says it’s good to know what kind of machine your county uses so that you can recognize if something goes wrong, and it's something you can find out on the Voting Equipment Map from the State Board of Elections.

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