The final stage of the Presidential debate in finally over and America is all set to cast its vote in November. While the overall voting pattern this election season has clearly left the world amused, the American voting technology is also something that can leave any citizen of a modern democratic state perplexed.
Voting in the United States is largely a decentralised affair with private citizens, rather than governmental officials being in charge at polling stations. Local party wings can appoint these officials as well. The decentralised voting strategy has ensured that each state or jurisdiction votes according to what it considers as the most suitable technology.
Voting equipment used in the US include optical scan paper ballot systems, direct recording electronic systems, ballot marking devices and systems and punch card voting systems. In addition to these, there are states where paper ballots are counted manually. It is worth noting that states also use a combination of voting equipment and then there are states that believe in postal voting.
Out of the 50 states in the US, 18 continue to use paper ballots — for instance New York, Minnesota, North Dakota and Alabama to name a few. Only five states — Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware and New Jersey — make use of direct recording electronic systems alone. Fourteen other states use a combination of both paper ballots and electronic voting. Apart from this, Washington, Oregon and Colorado make use of postal voting as a method wherein elections are conducted through mail alone.
The singular factor that governs the choice of voting technology is security. The earliest form of voting in the US was done verbally at local carnivals. People would call out their votes after taking an oath and their votes would be recorded in a poll book by a clerk. The need for privacy in voting led to the first instances of ballot voting after 1800s. However, ballot remained public at this point in time, wherein voters would sign their names under the candidate name of their choice. By the end of the nineteenth century, secret ballots had become the rule. Electronic voting in the US came into use since the 1960s.
However, the usage of electronic voting in the US did not lead to a termination of paper ballots. Speaking to Time magazine, Tom Hicks, chairman of Election Assistance Commission (EAC), said that many states continue to use paper technology primarily because of security and voter preference. Apart from that, cost of voting equipment has been another factor that has hindered a uniform acceptance of electronic voting.
Paper ballots on the other hand has also not established itself to be a singular favourite across jurisdictions. Concerns regarding use of paper took a particularly ugly turn after the election season of 2000 when George Bush ran against Al Gore. A recount of votes in Florida had raised the issue if ballots which had paper chads attached to them could be counted as valid votes. After this particular election most states of the US started using a combination of paper and electronic equipment for voting.
However, America is not the only country that has a federal structure of governance. In India too we follow a similar political structure. But lack of uniformity in terms of voting technology has never been the case in the short history of the republic. When independent India began general elections, paper ballots were the rule across all states. Electronic voting machines came into existence in the country in 1999 and by 2004 they came to be used throughout the country without any exception. As with the case in the US, security concerns over electronic voting had been raised in India as well. In February 2010, a conference headed by Subramanian Swamy at Chennai concluded that electronic voting in India was in fact hindering transparency. By October 2010, a recommendation was put forth to introduce a paper trail that would print out the symbol of the party to which the vote was cast.
America is larger than India in terms of geography, but much smaller in terms of population and size of electorate. Given the difference in number of eligible voters, it should in fact be much easier to bring about uniformity in voting method in the US. Why the country has not been able to do so however, remains a big question mark.