Many ways to cast a vote in the United States

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Nov 03 2008 01:10 PM | Updated as of Nov 03 2008 09:11 PM

WASHINGTON - Voters across the United States will use a variety of methods to cast their votes during the November 4 election.

The watershed 2000 vote that saw George W. Bush elected president also cast a harsh spotlight on flaws in the ways Americans cast their ballots, and prompted the federal government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrading voting equipment across the country.

In the tight race which saw Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by a few hundred votes in Florida, flaws became evident in the state's punch card voting system, leading to a push across the United States for upgraded election equipment.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), creating minimum election standards and alloting some three billion dollars to help US states upgrade voting machines and voter registration databases.

Election Data Services, a consulting firm, found almost 60 percent of the country has changed out its voting equipment in the eight years since Bush vs. Gore, although individual localities have adopted different changes.

Below are some of the key voting methods currently in use across the United States:

-- Paper ballots:

One of the earliest forms of voting, paper ballots are no longer used in many election precincts, often only in primary voting in smaller communities and absentee balloting. With the paper ballot, voters mark boxes next to the name of their candidate of choice, then drop the marked ballot into a sealed ballot box.

-- Lever machines:

Now considered a quaintly mid-20th century balloting method, the voter, after entering a solitary booth, pulls levers on a mechanical device, similar to a vending machine. Each candidate is assigned a lever and as the voter pulls the lever into place a register at the back of the machine keeps the score. These machines have been phased out in all but a handful of US jurisdictions.

-- Punch card ballots:

Punch card machines have fallen into disfavor and have been abandoned by most states after their ignoble starring role during the 2000 election cliffhanger in Palm Beach County, Florida.

With punch card balloting, a voter employs a mechanism on the machine to punch a hole next to the name of his or her candidate on the ballot.

Gaping flaws in the system became obvious after the 2000 election, when punch cards in some Florida localities were found to have multiple punches for one office. Others had holes that are only partially pushed through, making it difficult for the cards to be properly read by machines.

-- Touch-screen voting:

High-tech devices resembling the automatic teller machines widely in use at most banks across the United States, touch screen machines were widely employed after the punch card debacle of the 2000 election.

In Florida for example, 15 of the state's 67 counties -- jurisdictions representing more than half the state's population -- purchased touch-screen equipment after the 2000 presidential election.

But US states now are rapidly abandoning the technology because of concerns about its security and reliability.

The shift away from touch-screens rapidly has been gaining momentum. Election Data Services estimated that half the electorate used touch-screen voting in 2006. This year, less than a third will be using the touch screens.

Some voters reported problems, including that the machines sometimes registered a vote for the wrong candidate. Critics also have said the electronic machines are susceptible to tampering, even though election experts maintain there is no definitive proof of this.

-- Optical scanners

Many localities, disillusioned with touch-sceen voting, have been switching to paper ballots that can be read by optical scanners -- the same technology used by US students taking standardized, computer-scored tests in school.

Optical scanning equipment is being put in place in some jurisdictions because, unlike touch-screens, scanners maintain a record of each vote in the event of a recount.