N.C. uses bar codes to match voters with ballots

More than 2 million North Carolina voters have cast ballots since polls opened in the Tar Heel State on Oct. 16 for early voting, and the state Board of Elections is using a new bar code scanning system to help ensure that the ballots being cast are the correct ones.

'It is an extremely simple solution,' said Marc Burris, the Board of Elections' information technology director. 'The poll workers are already taxed with so many duties, so we wanted a simple and economic solution.'

At the front end of the system is a handheld bar code scanner from Motorola Inc. that matches the voter with the proper ballot. At the back end is a geographic information system tied into the statewide voter-registration system that assigns the appropriate ballot type to each voter, depending on his or her home jurisdiction.

As far as Burris knows, it is the first use of this type of system to manage ballot distribution for an election.

There can be hundreds of ballots for each election across the state's 2,751 precincts depending on the local races and issues being voted on in each jurisdiction. Guilford County has 99 ballots in this year's general election, and multiple ballots are used at many polling places.

Each voter must be given the appropriate ballot. The problem is multiplied during the early voting period, in which voters can cast their ballots at any polling place rather than just in their home precinct, so many types of ballots have to be available.

Voters sign affirmation cards at the polling places to specify the type of ballot to be used, but that matching has been done manually in the past.

'With any human task, there is always a chance of error,' Burris said. 'There was no methodology for ballot verification. You go on faith and hope that the right ballot is pulled out of the drawer.'

There are no figures for the error rate because there is no system in place to track it, but sometimes that faith has been misplaced.

'We decided to put a system into place back in 2007' because of a problem in the 2006 election, Burris said. 'Johnston County was handing out the wrong ballots, and we had to run the election over. We wanted to mitigate the possibility of another problem in 2008.'

Bar code scanning was the technology of choice because of its simplicity. The board initially considered using some type of personal digital assistant to do the scanning, but the devices were costly, were ergonomically impractical when used all day long and could be complex.

'The biggest challenge you have in a job like this is non-technical people using the technology,' said Jon Mazella, a sales manager at CDW Government Inc., the integrator working with the North Carolina Board of Elections.

State officials ultimately chose Motorola's P460 programmable cordless scanner, which resembles a Star Trek phaser and has a pistol grip, a read-out screen and a keypad for entering data. The system is simple to use. The poll worker scans a bar code on the voter's affirmation card and the corresponding code on the ballot being issued. The scanner gives a green light and an audible tone if they match, or an error message and another distinctive tone if there is a mismatch.

The state uses optical scan voting systems with paper ballots and direct recording systems using touch-screen computers. Because computer screens diffract light, poll workers cannot validate on-screen ballots by scanning a bar code. But the corresponding numerical code for the ballot displayed on-screen can be entered on the scanner's touchpad after the voter's card has been scanned to ensure the proper ballot has been brought up.

Because the system is a simple match or no-match of two codes, the scanners do not have to be tied into a database that associates voters with ballot types, thereby mitigating security and privacy concerns.

The back end of the system that assigns ballots to each of the state's 6 million registered voters is more complex, but it was already in place. It is a geo-coding system that uses GIS tied to maps of state jurisdictions. It is also linked to the registration system to indicate the proper type of ballot for each voter based on where he or she lives. The process is complicated by overlapping political jurisdictions and service districts, such as school, sewage and water, that could have specific candidates or issues on a ballot.

'That piece is pretty complex, but ironically, it is very accurate,' Burris said, because of the number of people, including legislators, who keep close tabs on it. 'We are confident it is accurate.'

To set up the new system, officials just had to associate each ballot type with a bar code and develop a program for the scanners to match them. CDW-G had been working with a third-party developer on the software, 'but the Board of Elections was able to do the coding themselves,' Mazella said.

'We write our own software,' Burris said. The board keeps that function in-house because of the need to rapidly create or revise applications as laws change. 'We have a lot of law changes,' he said, and there is not always time to go to a third party to incorporate them into the software.

The system was tested using 500 scanners in nine counties in the state's primary elections in May, and it is now being used statewide. In the opening weeks of voting, 'it is working beautifully,' Burris said.

One advantage of the P460 scanner is its usability for other tasks.

'I hate spending money for something we only use a few times a year,' Burris said. 'We are going to be able to develop different software for this.'

Because the system is typically used for inventory control, officials are developing new applications that will let them use the scanners to keep track of all election equipment and supplies that need to be distributed, collected and accounted for in each election.

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