After the 2000 presidential election and the controversy surrounding punch cards related to “hanging chads” and other potential errors, there has been a fairly strong movement in the U.S. to install more advanced voting tabulation technology. In fact, in 2002, the U.S. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act designed to “make sweeping reforms to the nation’s voting process.”
As a result, by the 2012 presidential election, punch card systems had been virtually eliminated, replaced primarily by a combination of electronic voting machines and paper ballots with results captured through OMR (optical market recognition). But, heading into this year’s November elections, that doesn’t mean all uncertainties surrounding voting tabulations have been cleared up. In fact, the way votes are collected and counted continues to evolve—with the latest trend being a move toward vote by mail.
Relevant to our industry is the fact that since 2000 there has been a significant increase in the percentage of votes being cast by paper ballot. In fact, a recent article from Wired stated that three-quarters of U.S. voters will cast paper ballots this fall (compared to around 40% or less in 2000). This means, that, as was originally predicted by DIR in the immediate wake of the 2000 election [see DIR 12/1/00], there is growing opportunity in the election market for DI vendors and integrators.
Clear Ballot and ibml are hoping to capitalize on this trend. Clear Ballot develops software for digitally capturing results from paper ballots, and ibml manufacturers high speed document scanners. The two companies recently announced a partnership which will involve integrating their technologies with Clear Ballot bringing the combined system to market.
Clear Ballot, which is based in Boston and was founded in 2009, differentiates itself from other election system providers by working primarily with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. “There is a big advantage to working with COTS hardware,” said Ed Smith, VP, product development, Clear Ballot. “It helps reduce the cost of a system and simplifies the replacement of parts. We have a partnership with Dell for the PCs and laptops we use. For scanners, we work with Fujitsu and now ibml.”
The first software product that Clear Ballot brought to market was Clear Audit. “Every state has some sort of post-election audit process,” said Smith. “In some cases, it’s based on a percentage of voting machines or precincts; in other cases, a sophisticated scientific formula is used. Clear Audit can also be used for recounts in close elections. Basically, our auditing process involves digitally scanning paper ballots that were originally processed through OMR or hand counted and applying Clear Audit.”
The first thing Clear Audit does is count the number of ballots that were scanned, which it compares to the number that was originally counted. Clear Audit also applies techniques like measuring the density of marks made in fields to determine confidence levels. Lower confidence marks can be displayed to human operators with links to images of the entire ballot. Clear Audit is designed to greatly increase the efficiency of the auditing/recount process, with hundreds of ballots able to be reviewed in minutes.
“We have developed our own OMR algorithms,” explained Smith. “Most people do a great job filling in the ovals, but you get a lot of cases of different densities, odd colored inks, people putting Xs through mistakes, and stuff like that.”
Clear Ballot prefers to work with 300 dpi grayscale images, which makes the Fujitsu and ibml scanners a good fit. “The Fujitsu scanners are good for the smaller counties or for counties doing on-the-spot scanning of paper ballots at the polling place,” said Smith. “But, if you look at the top 50 counties in the US, they definitely have enough volume to justify ibml devices.”
Recently, Clear Ballot began expanding into capturing full election results, which would seem to open up the market even more for ibml devices. “If you look at some of the larger counties in California, they currently have eight or nine high-speed OMR scanners capturing 400 ballots per minute each,” said Smith. “While the ibml ImageTrac is faster, it still would require more than one to capture 3,600 ballots per minute.
“Speed is important because it’s important that results are captured in time for them to make the 10 pm news on election night. The ibmls are much better than other scanners when you measure the speed you get for your dollar.”
For lower volume implementations, Clear Ballot will also be offering the ibml ImageTracDS 1210 desktop model, which, like its big brother, features an outsorting pocket. “We do most of our sorting electronically, but physical sorting can be valuable if you have a ballot with a bent corner that prevents an image from being read completely electronically,” said Smith. “The ibml devices can be set up to kick out those ballots with bent corners.”
There are already several states utilizing Clear Audit, and Clear Ballot is just starting to bring its general election processing technology to market. “The trend nationwide is toward advanced voting,” said Smith. “And three states, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, are almost completely using mail-in voting. We think this is going to create more opportunities for us.
“In addition we are seeing a tremendous amount of interest in our auditing system as this fall’s election approaches. I have been shocked by the number of RFPs that have come out recently. Nobody can move forward until after Dec. 1, but they seem to be looking to get ahead of the curve. Nobody wants to be the next Florida in 2000.”
Clear Ballot’s customers are typically counties, which are responsible for purchasing election systems. Selling to these counties requires some sort of certification. “All but a handful of states require testing by a federally accredited testing center, and that handful performs their own intensive testing,” said Smith. “Some states then also require specific testing that targets compliance with their laws. The testing can be different for auditing and general election systems.
“We have received several certifications for our system utilizing Fujitsu scanners. We’ve just started to move forward with the ibml systems. Because we already have a baseline to work from, it will probably take only about three or four months to get the ibml system certified.”
Pricing for Clear Ballot’s software is based on the modules being used and the volume of ballots being processed. “We also offers options like larger upfront payments and lower service fees going forward, or, almost like a SaaS model, where the county only pays a small amount up front with larger yearly service fees,” said Smith. “We install the whole system, from the scanners to the PCs to touchscreens to the Ethernet cables. That way the county only has one throat to choke.”
Smith noted that county election boards are typically fairly conservative in their buying habits. “They don’t want to be on the cutting edge, that’s why having proven COTS hardware can be helpful,” he said. “They also want to make sure they don’t have any downtime during crucial ballot processing periods, so they will typically purchase extra scanners to create redundancies.”
Overall, Smith noted there has been a trend in the entire U.S. to improve the voting process. “Historically, the voting experience has been pretty bad,” he said. “Especially after using their smart phones, the voting technology people are being asked to use can seem like it came from the age of the dinosaurs. But, there is technology out there that can fix this. For example, if ballots are being scanned at the polling station and for whatever reason they can’t be read, a voter can receive immediate feedback on a large touchscreen that they need to redo their ballot. We are just starting to see that type of technology emerge, but it gives you an idea of what the future of voting could look like.”
For more information: http://bit.ly/ClearBallotibml