Even with electronic voting, counting ballots lasts into the night

Slide in the plastic yellow card. Tap candidate names on the screen. Click “cast ballot.” Collect your “I’m a Georgia voter” sticker.

Voting is fast. Counting ballots can be another story all together.

In the age of electronic voting machines, why aren't ballots always counted at lightning speed?

It’s because some of the votes — absentee ballots — are counted by hand, and even digital ballots must be delivered in-person to central election offices.

“Even though it’s on electronic ballots, you still have to go through the process of checks and balances,” said Michael Barnes, director for The Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University. “If the voters know the results before they go to bed, it’s been a good election.”

Millions of Georgians will go to the polls Tuesday to vote for the nation's president and local officials, and on various initiatives and constitutional questions.

But what happens after the polls close at 7 p.m., and why is it that tallying votes is sometimes a time-consuming affair?

Credit: Robert Calzada

Credit: Robert Calzada

No internet allowed

One hurdle could be traffic.

Because of concerns about hacking, ballots are stored on 48 megabyte rectangular memory cards — one for each of the 27,000 electronic voting machines across the state. These memory cards are different from the yellow cards given to voters, which contain a code that tells the voting machine to display the ballot but don’t store any vote information.

When polls close on Election Day, poll workers shut down each electronic voting machine and verify that three numbers match: the paper certificates voters fill out when they arrive, the electronic list of voters and the total ballots recorded by the machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems.

This process helps prevent fraud and ensure votes have been counted accurately.

Because voting machines don’t use the internet, there’s little risk of tampering, said DeKalb Elections Director Maxine Daniels.

“They can’t steal the election because those units are never connected to each other,” she said.

The memory cards at each precinct are sealed in a bag, then driven from precincts to county election offices.

That means precinct workers must deal with traffic. And we all know how bad that can be in metro Atlanta.

Once election officials have the memory cards in hand, they load them into a computer that counts every race.

Rush to the election office

That computer is called the Global Election Management System (GEMS), which uses the Windows 2000 Server operating system and displays lights on the screen that change from red to green when all of a precinct’s votes are counted.

Several times a night, each county copies its results to a secure USB flash drive and then uploads them to the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. The public can look online to see how the election is going, but the actual counts are kept in every county and never touch the internet.

The biggest batch of results pours in from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The state’s most populous counties, especially those in metro Atlanta, generally take the longest amount of time to report their results because they have the most polling places and ballots.

One precinct manager has a reputation for speediness.

Brian Derouen, who works in the Georgetown Square shopping center precinct in Dunwoody, is usually the first to arrive at the county’s central DeKalb elections office, usually getting there by 8 p.m.

“It’s not like I’m trying to have a race, but it’s important to be efficient,” said Derouen, whose precinct workers have managed 20 years of elections together. “We use a lot of teamwork. Our goal is to get it done.”

When a memory card can’t be read by the computers, or if a card gets lost, that can lead to delays. In those cases, election workers have to bring the original voting machine — which stores a copy of all votes cast — to the central county election office.

Still, none of these potential pitfalls is the biggest reason for late nights of vote counting.

Back to paper

Absentee voting by mail usually causes the most significant delays. Why? Because it’s done on paper ballots.

One at a time, these ballots are fed into optical scanning machines, a tedious effort that takes many hours, even with numerous scanners and election workers whittling down the piles.

“The whole process is more labor intensive,” said Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler. “We don’t expect to be finished until sometime in the wee hours of the night.”

Some states use machines that can process bundles of paper ballots at a time, but they’re more expensive.

“It’s a slow process,” Daniels said. “It’s so unpredictable” how long it will take.

Sometime in the middle of the night, likely after 2 a.m., almost all votes will be counted.

But even then, results aren’t official until all military, overseas and provisional ballots are accounted for and election systems audited.

The election isn’t really over until results are certified a week or more later.

Georgia voting machines don’t leave a paper trail

Georgia converted to electronic voting machines in 2002 after punch-card paper ballots in Florida contributed to the monthlong delay in concluding the 2000 presidential election.

In the years since, an increasing number of states have opted to use optical scan systems, in which voters fill in ovals or rectangles next to the candidates of their choice. These ballots are then fed into a machine at polling places, leaving behind paper proof of every vote.

Most electronic voting systems, like Georgia’s, use touch screens that don’t create a paper trail for each voter. Votes are stored on memory cards and copied on the machines themselves.

Even without a verifiable paper trail, it would be difficult to distort the results, said Kim Brace, president of Virginia-based Election Data Services.

“None of these machines is connected to the internet, so how are you going to hack them?” he said. “You’re not going to be able to.”

Each of Georgia’s machines print paper tapes at the end of the day showing the total number of votes cast, but there’s no paper record of individual votes.

Some states have installed printers with their electronic machines to create a paper trail, and Georgia experimented with that kind of system in three precincts during the 2006 general election.

The test-run turned out to be a giant hassle, said Cobb County Elections Director Janine Eveler. The printouts made an unwieldy mess.

“The paper was extremely cumbersome,” she said. “We have pictures of it stretching down the hallway.”

Electronic machines have several advantages over optical scan cards, Brace said. They display customized ballots for each jurisdiction, and their type size can be adjusted for people with poor vision.

In the future, Georgia could consider allowing people to vote anywhere in their county instead of specific precincts because electronic machines are able to load location-specific ballots anywhere, Brace said. That’s how early voting locations in Georgia already work.

Nationwide, 66 percent of registered voters use optical scan systems, 20 percent use electronic systems, and an additional 9 percent use electronic systems with a paper trail, Brace said. The other 5 percent of the country still uses paper ballots, punch cards or a mix of voting methods.

By the numbers

5,243,879: Active Georgia voters

3,000: Precincts

27,000: Electronic voting machines

7 p.m.: Time polls close Nov. 8