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03 Jul 2018

Why not just use pens to mark a ballot?

by Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney Quesenbery Photo

Making voting universal (and secure)

Picture this: It’s Election Day, 2020, and some states are reporting massively long lines of voters waiting to get a ballot, mark it, verify it, and cast it. Others have no lines at all. A few are celebrating higher turnout but shorter lines.

What’s different in these places?

Or perhaps on that Election Day some voters can mark their ballot with no problems, while others use antiquated systems that take a long time to use. Still other voters have to ask someone to help them because there are no accessibility features to help them mark their ballot on their own.

Which voter would you rather be?

A voting system for everyone

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed in 2002 to improve voting for everyone. It said that every polling place has to have a way for voters with disabilities to vote privately and independently, as other voters do.

A voting system is more than just a way to mark a ballot. The way we vote should reflect basic principles for trustworthy elections:

  • Everyone can use the same voting system
  • Everyone can mark their ballot without errors
  • There are paper ballots to provide a way to audit or recount the election
  • Ballots can be counted quickly and accurately
  • Everyone can have confidence in the election results

Maybe you are thinking, “How hard can it be to fill in a few circles on a paper ballot?” There is a lot of evidence from real elections that it’s harder than you might think, especially if the paper ballot is not designed well. Having a way to verify how your ballot will be counted makes a big difference to whether your vote counts.

In the 2016 California Senate primary, there were 34 candidates—enough to force the display of the contest across 2 columns on paper ballots. Where that happened, the number of people who voted for more than one candidate was a high 1.4% for districts where the ballots were checked and counted in the polling place.  Where ballots are counted at a central office, the overvote rate was a shocking 4.9%, showing how important error checking is in helping voters verify their ballot.  Compare that to still-high-but-more-reasonable a 0.7-0.9% rate for a single column display.

Ballot marking devices

For jurisdictions that use paper ballots, that usually means there is a ballot marking device. That’s a computer that acts like a pen, but is fully accessible. Voters make their selections through a digital interface and when they’re done, the machine prints a human-readable, human-countable ballot that is cast with all the other ballots.

Ballot marking devices can help many voters, and they are more usable and more accessible than they have ever been. By displaying and marking the ballot on a screen, voters can adjust the text size if they need it a little larger because they don’t see well (or may have left their glasses at home). Ballot marking devices can be an efficient way to provide ballots in alternative languages. Reading the ballot aloud (through headphones) helps voters who don’t read well and those who cannot see the screen. Every ballot marking device interface can be personalized, so no one has to request a special voting machine to use accessibility features. Every voter at a polling place or vote center can use the same voting system.

But the most important benefit is that ballot marking devices include features that help ensure that they capture a voter’s intent and record it in a consistent way. These features include preventing overvotes, warning about undervotes, and a review screen that lets the voter confirms their selections in each contest before printing a ballot.

In other words, ballot marking devices combine an electronic interface and a printed paper ballot in a way that helps everyone.  In addition to creating a consistent experience for voters, they can also improve elections in general by reducing the number of ballots that are challenged (or that can’t be counted) because they have ambiguous marks.

Two concepts seem especially promising for making ballot marking devices the universal voting system: printed ballots with voter selections and the use of QR or bar codes.

Voter-selections ballots

Most paper ballots look like a standardized test with lists of options and circles, squares, or ovals to fill in to select your answer. On a ballot, a voter verifies their selections visually, by the relationship between the candidate name and the location of the mark. The optical scanners that count these ballots look for marks at specific locations on the ballot. The scanners are programmed to connect those locations to the candidate.

Ballot marking devices have an alternative. They can print a list of all of the contests on the ballot and the voter’s selections (or if they haven’t made one for that contest). It’s like a conversation:

  1. The voter marks and reviews their choices on-screen
  2. The voting system replies by showing the list of selections
  3. The voter checks that list to verify that the ballot reflects their intent
  4. And then casts their ballot

Voters not only review how they have marked their ballot, but also get a confirmation of how the system interprets their marks.

There are a lot of benefits to a voter-selections ballot:

  • Better verification. Voters just read the list instead of relying on their assumptions about how their ballot will be counted.
  • More accessible. Voter who need help reading printed material can use a magnifier or a personal device that converts printed text to electronic text.
  • Easier for people with low literacy. The words on the ballot focus on the candidates who have been selected. Fewer words, easier to read.

We also believe that more people will verify their vote when it’s on the actual ballot to be counted, not a “receipt.” Security experts tell us that only a relatively small number of voters need to verify ballots on each voting system, but obviously, the more who do, the better.

We’d love to see more research on how people—especially new or infrequent voters—interact with voter-selections ballots. There has already been robust design research and usability testing in Los Angeles County as part of the work to develop a new voting system. All their reports are online at

But more general research could build confidence in these ballots and help develop good design guidelines. (Hint to funders!)

QR codes

QR codes—those little squares of squiggles—are the second part of making voter-selections ballots work.

Ideally, the ballots would be counted by reading the names printed on the ballot, but character recognition (OCR) is not yet fast enough or accurate enough to use in an election. The Los Angeles project reviewed current systems, and we believe their conclusion. Of course, technology is always getting better, so the day when a voting system can read the printed text may not be far off.

Scanners can read QR or bar codes very accurately, so the solution is to put all of the selections into a code. There is a potential problem: what if the system encodes something different than the selections printed on the paper? There have to be rules to make sure this can be checked easily. There are three simple rules:

  • The code and the list must be on the same piece of paper, so it’s easy to audit.
  • The code must be a public specification. That includes both the encoding method and how the information in the code is read.
  • The ballot information on the code and paper must be the same.

This combination of a selections-only ballot and a QR or bar code is already in use in some voting systems. Oregon has used it for their accessible vote-by-mail ballot for many years.  Military and overseas voters have an option to use a similar system that sends a digital ballot marking program, so they can mark, print, and return their ballots within the deadlines. The codes are also useful as a backup if a ballot is too damaged to run through the high-speed scanners.

Running elections

Let’s go back to those scenarios at the beginning of this article.

Can ballot marking devices help with long lines? Maybe.

They are certainly a good alternative to computer voting equipment that records votes electronically with no audit trail at all. Jurisdictions currently using these “direct recording electronic” (DRE) systems already know how many they need to keep their lines under control and can replace them with ballot marking devices and a ballot scanner.

They are more streamlined than a ballot-on-demand printer because every voter is handed a blank ballot paper to be printed with their selections.

They are fully accessible, so there is no special accessible voting system that poll workers have to learn to set up and operate.

There are innovations that can make using a ballot marking device even faster. Los Angeles County has tested the idea of an interactive sample ballot that would let voters make their choices at home. Then, at the polling place the voter can quickly transfer those choices to the ballot marking device, make any changes, and then proceed to review, print, verify and cast the ballot. This idea was tested in an academic research project that showed it could speed up voting and reduce lines.

We’ve already talked about how ballot marking devices help many voters—with disabilities, overseas voters, voters who don’t read well, or who use an alternative language.

Voter-selections ballots are also easy to audit. They don’t even have to use the codes for the audits or recounts. Those second-checks could use the printed names, since most voters will have used that list to verify their vote.

Summing up

Let’s review.

Digital ballots help people vote independently and privately, with accessibility options.

Ballot marking devices produce the printed ballot that is critical for audits and recounts.

A printed ballot that’s easier to read means more voters verify their ballot, adding to confidence in the election.

QR codes make it possible to count the ballots as quickly and accurately as we expect in today’s elections, no matter what size paper they are printed on or what font is used.

The QR codes can also be audited for accuracy as part of strong election integrity procedures.

What’s not to like?


This article is also available on


Field Guide Vol. 1: Designing usable ballots

Los Angeles County Voting System for All People

Anywhere Ballot

Principles for remote ballot marking systems (PDF)