Originally published in The Bridge last year, this piece remains useful in helping citizens understand how a paper ballot system will impact their voting experience. PBW
The Essential Voting Experience
Just the other day a friend asked me to describe the Paper Ballot/Optical Scan voting system that she has heard so much about. Having voted on the lever machines all her adult life, she was curious what it will be like to vote using the paper ballot system. I expect my friend is not the only citizen to wonder about such things.
Certainly the shift to a different voting system will bring changes but some aspects of the experience will remain very familiar. The voter will, of course, still have to be registered to vote and she will still have to sign in at the Election Inspector’s table upon entering the polling place. Eventually it may come to pass that the Inspectors will have access to the statewide electronic registration records and that might result in a different sign in procedure. In the near term, however, the voter will continue to sign in as we have done in the past. It is from this point on that the voter will experience some changes.
Instead of cueing up and waiting her turn at a voting machine, the voter will be given a paper ballot and be directed to take a seat at any one of several privacy booths in the polling area. One polling place this writer recently visited in Maine had over a dozen booths. The quantity of privacy booths needed will be dictated by the number of voters the polling place is intended to serve. Each privacy booth will have all necessary ballot instructions posted and will be equipped with the proper marking pen. Paper ballots vary but most simply require the voter to fill in a circle or complete an arrow to indicate their choices. There will likely be no time limit for the voter. She will be able to leisurely consider each ballot section, referring to the instructions as often as necessary, and taking as much time as she needs to make her choices.
When a voter has finished marking her ballot she simply deposits it in the ballot box before leaving the polling place. If a ballot scanner is being used to tally the votes, the voter would instead insert her ballot into the scanner. There is not likely to be any waiting at the ballot scanner as it takes less than three seconds for the machine to scan a ballot.
When a ballot scanner is used New York State law requires that the machine notify the voter of an undervote; that is the absence of a selection in one or more ballot positions. If the undervote was intentional the voter simply tells the scanner to accept the ballot as is. If unintentional the voter can return to a privacy booth to complete the ballot. The Election Law also requires a scanner to reject a ballot with an overvote (too many ballot selections in a position). A ballot rejected due to an overvote will be ejected by the machine. Corrections or erasures are not allowed, so a poll worker will assist the voter in obtaining a replacement ballot and the voter returns to a privacy booth to mark the new ballot. Scanned ballots are retained in a secure storage box under the machine, and because they are the official record of the election, are retained for a length of time to maintain their availability in the event of a recount.
One last observation concerning the voter’s experience in the polling place and the election process in general; When voting with a paper ballot a citizen enjoys a very personal and gratifying experience. She is issued her own personal ballot, a tangible document, which she marks with her own hand, and then deposits in the ballot box with her own hand. She leaves the polling place with no doubt as to how she voted. She read it, she marked it, she reviewed it, and she put it the locked ballot box herself. The only way she could claim any greater confidence as to the integrity of her vote would be to volunteer to be an election inspector and help count the ballots herself - which of course she can and should do along with many of her neighbors.