Ballot Marking Devices

Assistive Technology

Ballot Marking Devices (BMD), also called Electronic Ballot Markers, provide an interface to assist voters in marking a paper ballot, which is then scanned or counted manually. Most voters are able to mark paper ballots with a pen or pencil, but not everyone can do so. BMDs are special-purpose computers that allow voters to mark a paper ballot via a user interface, such as a touchscreen, plus optional accessibility features (e.g. tactile keyboard, headphone jack, and other assistive devices) similar to those available on Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting devices. The BMD produces either a paper ballot identical to the ballot marked by voters with a pen or pencil or a summary of the voter’s selections. In either case, the paper output is separately tabulated, by hand or with an optical scanner.

An electronic ballot marker is a “voter-editable ballot device that produces an executed, human-readable paper ballot as a result, and that does not make any other lasting record of the voter’s votes.” NIST, Definitions of Words with Special Meanings in the VVSG.

By definition a BMD only records votes and does not tabulate nor retain them as is the case with DREs. Recently some manufacturers have modified systems initially sold as BMDs to allow them to be configured to tabulate and retain votes in computer memory (like a DRE) as well as printing paper ballots. In this discussion, whatever a voting system is called, if votes are recorded and retained in computer memory, they are considered direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems.

This web page gives an overview of BMDs and discusses important ways in which specific BMD model versions differ from one another, particularly with regard to how well they can support routine, robust, and efficient statistical post-election audits. A history of ballot marking devices and systems can viewed below.

States Using BMDs Statewide
Alabama, Connecticut, District of Colombia, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia.

States Using BMDs in Some Counties
Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

BMD Features. BMDs incorporate a variety of assistive technologies for voters with vision, mobility and other disabilities that allow voters to adjust the text size of ballots displayed on screen, provide an audio “read-aloud” function that permits a method of ballot verification other than visual inspection and facilitate presentation of ballots in multiple languages.

Using BMDs for all voters. In general, most jurisdictions will only need to purchase one optical scanner and one accessible ballot marking device per polling place. If all voters use BMDs rather than marking ballots by hand, jurisdictions will be required to acquire and maintain multiple BMDs for each polling place because, like DREs, each BMD can only accommodate a limited number of voters during the course of an election day. As with all-DRE polling places, long lines and excessive waiting times may result – especially when some BMDs break down or there are not enough BMDs for peak times during election day.1 Jurisdictions using optical scanners for most voters can easily scale up or down in planning for increased turnout by providing additional voting stations for marking paper ballots when necessary.

ExpressVote Ballot Summary

Types of ballots. Some BMDs can write and read the standard card stock paper ballots used for all voters, while others print on thermal paper, similar to the paper used in gas pumps or cash registers to print receipts. All BMDs print a ballot that displays the voter’s choices in human-readable form and can interpret voted ballots, but some only produce a summary record of the voter’s choices.2 Summaries that include all contests, including those in which the voter has not made a choice, provide protection against unintentional undervotes.

BMDs and bar codes. All optical scan ballots encode election definition and ballot style information in a barcode or QR code that provides the scanner with election-specific information necessary to correctly interpret the ballot. Some optical scanners and BMDs also encode voter choices for individual contests into a separate barcode or QR code that also appears on the printed ballot or summary. Voters choices reflected in the barcode are not human-readable. Manual post-election audits and recounts should require election workers to inspect the human-readable text as part of the audit process to check that scanners and tabulation software have not miscounted ballots.

Alternative Ballot Marking Systems. The IVS Inspire Vote-By-Phone is a telephone based assistive device used in configuration with an optical scan voting system. Voters listen to the ballot through headphones and make their selections on a touchtone telephone-style keypad using the Inspire voting system. At one point in use in six state, the Inspire Vote-By-Phone system will only be used in Vermont in 2018. The Vote-PAD, used in 9 precincts in Wisconsin, is a non-electronic, voter-assist device that helps people with a broad range of visual or dexterity impairments to mark a paper ballot. The Vote-PAD uses a tactile ballot interface and a specially designed LED wand that allows voters to verify their selections.

BMD features and differences. There are significant differences between Ballot Marking Devices currently offered by different vendors, and even among different versions of the same model BMD offered by a particular vendor.  The table below summarizes different features offered by different versions of BMD’s currently available from the major voting systems vendors and the VSAP system developed by Los Angeles County, California. This is a rapidly changing market; if you learn of a system that is not included in this table, or if you have questions about specific information shown in the table, please send email with questions or suggestions to info@verifiedvoting.org.

A Brief History of Ballot Marking Devices

Initially ballot markers were developed in the 1890s to provide a paper record as a check against mechanical tabulation. The first commercially viable ballot marking device was the Votamatic, patented in 1962, which assisted voters in punching chad from pre-scored ballots. By the 1990s, the Votamatic had become the most widely used voting system in America before it’s notorious demise after the Florida recount in 2000. IBM marketed the Votomatic until 1968, when it spun off Computer Election Systems Inc. to produce and market the system. Along with being inexpensive and lightweight, the Votomatic also easily facilitated ballot in different languages.

The Votamatic was also the first voting machine to attract efforts to provide limited accessibility for voters with disabilities, with John Ahmann filing for a patent on a punching stylus for the Votomatic adapted for use by voters with motor disabilities in 1986. Tactile voting devices are used in England enable a visually impaired person to mark a ballot paper in secret. The device, consisting of a number of flaps, each covering one of the voting target on the ballot is attached to a ballot paper, and consists of a number of flaps with raised number and braille, each covering one of the boxes on the paper, that direct the voter where to mark. A more sophisticated advancement on the tactile ballot is produced by VotePAD and is in use in several counties in Wisconsin.

With the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), states were required to supply each polling place with voting equipment that allowed voters with disabilities to vote privately and independently. While many states used the federal funding provided by HAVA for accessible equipment to purchased direct recording electronic voting machines that had been retrofitted with accessible interfaces many preferred to continue using paper ballot systems. To meet this need, Ernest Cummings filed for a patent in 2003 on a machine that became the AutoMARK. This machine has a touch screen, tactile keyboard, and headphone jack, as well as support for several other assistive devices, and it records votes on ballots used by several widely used optical scan voting systems.

The AutoMARK was first produced and marketed by Vogue Election Systems, but after the significant demand for a paper based option for meeting the HAVA accessibilities became apparent, Vogue was purchased by Election Systems & Software in 2004 and went on to become the most widely distributed accessible voting equipment by 2008.