Q&A: E-poll books, an electronic alternative to voter ID

E-poll book system
This e-poll book system allows election administrators to improve operational efficiencies and confidence at poll sites, the system's maker says.
Image courtesy Datacard Group

As a bill that would put the issue of voter ID on the November ballot works its way through the state Legislature, some opponents to the measure are offering electronic poll books as an alternative.

Read a MPR News primer on voter ID.

Tom Crann of All Things Consider spoke on Thursday to Brent Iles, the regional government sales manager for Datacard Group, a Minnetonka company that makes electronic poll book systems.

An edited transcript of that discussion is below.

Tom Crann: Is the purpose the electronic poll book to actually confirm the ID of the voter or is it to have a record that the person voted?

Brent Iles: Depending on the state, it really is a combination of both. Historically, everyone has used paper poll books, which were printed information about the voter. When a voter checked in, whether they needed to show an ID or not — and it does vary by state — they'd look up information, confirm your name, confirm your address and then proceed to check you in. The electronic poll book does the same type of thing, it just does it a lot faster and it reduces a lot of chance for possible error.

Crann: Because it is electronic, does it have a photo of each voter that's taken from some source that can be compared to the person standing in front of the election judge?

Iles: That's a new idea for us. Electronic poll books have been in use in over 20 states, starting in 2004. In every case right now, I believe it does not have a photo. A photo was recently requested as a possibility for another state. We already have four other states now inquiring how they might incorporate a photo into the electronic poll book as well.

Crann: When I go to my polling place here in Minnesota, they have a big print out, a book, I sign in and that shows that I've voted. In this system, electronically, how does that work?

Iles: We would capture the signature electronically. This makes it easier for me to check records if I need to look at a signature rather than paging through books to find that. It also makes it very easy to have a count of the number of people who have checked in to vote at any particular time during the day.

Crann: It's like at a supermarket or any store where I sign a check out?

Iles: Correct. [It's the] same type of device you use when you ... sign with a credit card. We use that to capture your signature. Not all states require signatures, in Virginia, for example, they do not require the capture of a signature.

Crann: How does this system determine whether someone has voted previously that day, or even absentee ballot, to ensure that people don't vote twice?

Iles: An election official typically will download data out of the state voter registration system the Sunday before an election. At that point, it includes all information about voters who are registered to vote and those who have voted absentee. That way, should a voter show up at a poll to vote — who had voted absentee — that would immediately indicate to the poll worker that they have got an issue they need to deal with because this voter shows a vote having already been cast.

Electronic poll books also help because if you show up at the wrong precinct, it's very easy to have the entire county data available to look up and be able to tell you exactly where you need to go, to the correct polling place.

Crann: It sounds like, voter ID issue aside, that this technology is on its way to polling places in one form or another?

Iles: Electronic poll book technology — whether a photo is involved or not — offers a number of benefits, and potential for reducing some of the costs that are incurred when you run an election. But [it also offers a benefit] for the voters because the technology allows you to check them in faster. What that means is less time standing in line, which will make all voters happy.

Interview transcribed by Jon Collins, MPR reporter.

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