One in a frequent series of stories examining Maine’s voting system.

Filling in the little ovals on your ballot next to your preferred candidate is just the first part of the voting process in Maine. Ballot instructions warn you to mark those ovals completely and carefully – and with good reason.

Unless you live in a small town that hand counts ballots, you’ll be feeding your completed ballot into a machine that scans those ovals to determine who you voted for. It then makes an electronic record of the results.

Most Maine voters, including the nearly 300,000 who have already voted by absentee ballot, will have their ballots fed into an Elections Systems and Software DS200 optical ballot scanning machine. That machine and one other, the high-speed DS850 also made by Election Systems and Software, are the two machines Maine relies on to securely and accurately conduct elections.

Here’s what you need to know about how these devices work.

How many ballot scanning machines do we have in Maine and where are they used?

In all, the state leases around 500 DS200 machines and just one DS850. The machines are distributed by the state to communities with 1,000 or more voters. They are used in more than half of Maine’s over 500 municipalities – 44 of which just got them this year – and are used by roughly 90 percent of all voters in Maine. Only about 130 towns still use ballot boxes and hand count ballots. The more voters a municipality has, the more machines it is issued.

How do these machines work? 

The technology is similar to a digital image-scanning device. Programming in the machine is specific to the ballot for your election district and allows the machine to determine which candidates you have selected. The machine captures a digital image of your ballot as it is scanned, and this data is stored on a proprietary thumb-drive device. It’s not the kind of thumb-drive you could pop into your laptop to transfer data. The DS850 machine is a high-speed tabulator that quickly processes large stacks of ballots.

Do these machines have to meet any performance standards?

The federal U.S. Election Assistance Commission sets quality and control standards for voting machines in the U.S. As a part of its bidding process, the state requires vendors to supply voting machines that meet the federal standard, according to Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

Couldn’t these machines or their software be hacked into or tampered with over the internet?

No. Ballot scanning machines in Maine are not connected to the internet, so there is no pathway from the web to the machine that would allow an outside hacker into the system.

So it’s impossible to tamper with a ballot scanning machine in Maine?

No. It is possible that the proprietary software the system uses could be tampered with, but there has never been any evidence that this has happened in Maine or anywhere else where DS200s are in use. It would be very difficult to hack the machine and would require access to software code that is closely guarded and protected by both state and federal laws.

How can we know for sure that the system hasn’t been tampered with? 

There are a series of security checks that take place for each scanning machine well before each election. This process involves running a set of sample ballots through the machine to ensure it is counting correctly and functioning properly. This is done for all the machines being used in Maine.

On top of that, hand recounts of close elections have “historically shown those optical scanners to be incredibly accurate,” said Deb McDonough, a member of the voting rights team with the League of Women Voters of Maine.

“We do the programming of all the tabulators’ proprietary memory devices in-house in Augusta and we test every single one before they are sent out to the town clerks,” said Muszynski, in the Secretary of State’s Office. “We also test every ballot style, and we require the clerks to do pre-election testing too.”

I’m still skeptical. What happens if something does go screwy?

The state’s system for counting votes is backed up by the paper trail of the ballots themselves. Maine, unlike a handful of other states, still keeps the actually paper ballot you use to vote. That ballot is ultimately placed in a locked box that also gets a tamperproof seal. In a 2018 video reassuring voters of the security of the system, Dunlap says, “It’s pretty tough to hack a pen, nobody’s figured it out yet.”

McDonough, with the League of Women Voters of Maine, said the state’s hand-marked balloting system is “the gold standard” for elections.

Where do voters in hand-count towns put their ballots?

Towns that hand count ballots have voters place them in locked ballot boxes. State law requires the boxes be big enough to accept all the ballots from any election. They must also be designed with an opening that is large enough to accept a ballot, but in a way that no ballots can be removed or tampered with through the opening.

The law requires that boxes be monitored at all times by an election official during the election. The boxes can only be opened and ballots removed for counting or secure storage by authorized election officials. When this happens, poll workers from both of the state’s major political parties must be present to safeguard against ballot tampering.

How does ballot counting work with ranked-choice voting?

That work is done in the Secretary of State’s Office. Their staff takes the election results and processes them in a computer loaded with proprietary tabulation software that applies the rules of Maine’s ranked-choice voting law and runs the successive rounds of voting that determine the winner.

But what about those towns that are hand counting ballots?

Those towns will send their ballots in locked and sealed boxes to Augusta, where they will be optically scanned and processed through the DS850 for tabulation.

Do you have a question about Maine’s election system or how your vote will be counted? Send it to [email protected]

Correction: This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 to correct errors in the descriptions of a ballot tabulating machine’s operations and how ranked-choice ballots are tabulated.

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