Poll books are emerging as an alternative to photo ID requirements to authenticate voters' identity, address, and registration status when they show up at polling places to vote.
Voting is the same, but signing in with electronic poll books is different. Poll workers check in voters using a faster, computer version of paper voter rolls. Upon arrival, voters give their name, address, or in some states, such as Iowa, they can choose to scan their photo IDs.
A far better job
Georgia and Maryland were the first to use electronic poll books statewide in 2005, said Merle King, executive director for the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw (Ga.) State University.
Poll books can be used to verify voters' identity at polling places, but voters who face obstacles securing official documents to register to vote face the same difficulty in getting birth certificates, photo ID, and related documents to provide data for electronic poll books.
Ken Kline, auditor for Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, is neutral about laws that require photo ID at the polls but said his Precinct Atlas computer program does a far better job of identifying a person than a poll worker glancing at a picture that might be outdated.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and his bipartisan Election Integrity Task Force proposed using poll books to connect voter registration from the state elections division and cross-reference that database with photos from the state department of motor vehicles. This wouldn't help people who lack driver's licenses. In November, Minnesotans will decide whether to require photo ID at the polls.
From paper ballots to voting machines, the technology for elections has advanced, but has been behind the curve, said Doug Lewis, executive director of Election Center, a nonprofit that says its purpose is to promote, preserve, and improve democracy.
Now with electronic poll books, technology can verify who votes.
For the November 2012 elections, the majority of Americans' votes still will be cast on paper ballots and counted by optical or digital scanners. Disabled voters will cast ballots either with the aid of another person or on electronic machines designed to help them. In more than 30 states, voters will have some paper record of their vote, while voters in 11 states will cast votes with no paper at all, according to Verified Voting, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that tracks machine voting and advocates for verified paper trails.
Voting machines malfunction and have been known to fail to record votes, add or subtract votes to various candidates, or simply overheat.
Though these new technologies can help verify voters' identities and give added accessibility, no voting system to date has proved immune to problems.
Just as contacts are stored in a phone, an electronic poll book records voters on a searchable, digital list that poll workers can retrieve and use to verify a voter's name, address, birth date, and political party.
In Iowa, the computer system prints labels with voter information to place on a check-in sheet. Voters are handed the correct ballot based on their precincts and party affiliation. Poll workers can immediately fix or change any information in the database.
Kline said the poll book protects voting rights and election integrity by verifying the correct precinct, expediting voting and allowing voters to easily register or change political parties on Election Day.
Larry Haake, registrar for Chesterfield County, Va., which includes part of Richmond, said poll books had cut down on waiting times in the county's 73 precincts.
"Voters love it because they walk in, go to any line, get checked in quickly and are in and out. Poll workers say the same thing. You don't get the lines backing up; you don't have people grumbling."
The federal government regulates voting machines but doesn't have standards or testing procedures for electronic poll books because the devices neither capture nor count votes, said King of Kennesaw State University. He sees this as a problem because poll books should be tested by someone other than who set up the poll book.
There's also new hardware that helps make voting more accessible and transparent.
Oregon and Denver use iPads as ballots - Denver for seniors and voters who have disabilities and Oregon for the disabled. Oregon votes by mail statewide, but election officials provided iPads for voters who would benefit from them.
Both states use software from Everyone Counts, an election-technology company that provides software to ensure secure elections and has conducted elections in Chicago, Honolulu, Colorado, Utah, and West Virginia. Other states are looking to Oregon and Denver on how they implement the new method.
The iPads meet the federal requirements for voters who have disabilities.
"It's a very adaptable tool," said Kate Brown, Oregon secretary of state. "A couple of the citizens that I watched vote loved the iPad technology, even if they haven't used a computer before."
Not only are the iPads more portable, but they are cheaper than their voting-machine counterparts.
"An iPad, these are about $400 or $500. Whereas a voting machine could cost $4,000 or $5,000," said Amber McReynolds, the Denver director of elections. "It's a step in the right direction to expand the use of technology in elections."
Another new technology, a tracking system for mail-in ballots, can increase ballot security and calm voters' worries by texting or e-mailing voters the location of their ballot every step of the way.
An often-heard concern about mail voting is the uncertainty of the location of the voter's ballot. Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson said she wants to make elections more transparent and says that can be done with new mail-voting technology launched in 2009, Ballot TRACE, which stands for Tracking, Reporting and Communication Engine.
'Did you get it?'
"Our No. 1 call that we received in our call centers was 'Where's my mail ballot?' or 'Did you get it?' or 'Is it coming?' or 'Has it been counted?' " McReynolds said.
Using the Denver-based software company i3logix and working with the U.S. Postal Service, the elections department offered voters a way to know where their vote is at all times - from the first printing to when it is counted.
On each envelope of a voter's ballot is an intelligent mail bar code (IMB) that the post office can scan to register when the ballot is about to be sent to the voter or has returned.
Denver is the only city with this type of automatic service, said Steve Olsen, executive vice president of i3logix. Oregon also offers a tracking service for voters, but they must log in on the secretary of state's website.
Who Can Vote?
This story was produced by reporters working for News21, a national investigative-reporting project involving college journalism students from across the country and based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The Inquirer is publishing other stories from this series with other media partners.
For the complete Voting Rights in America project, visit http:// votingrights.news21.com
For The Inquirer's continuing coverage on the voter ID issue, go to http://www.philly.com/
Michael Ciaglo and AJ Vicens
of News21 contributed to this article.