The right to elect one's public representatives is the foundation upon which our democracy is built. So if you think Hurricane Sandy is going to stop Americans from choosing the next leader of the free world, demand a recount. Here's a look at the technology everyone over 18 can expect to find in a voting booth on November 6th, 2012.
Under normal circumstances—and in every state not recovering from severe storm damage—Americans vote using one of four common types of equipment:
Optical Scan Paper Ballot Systems look and work suspiciously like an SAT test. Voters use a pen to fill in ovals or connect arrows on the ballot indicating their choice. The ballot is then fed into an optical scanner, either at the polling place or at a central counting location, which tabulates the vote. And just like the SAT, you're going to want to fill in each answer darkly and completely—no X's or check marks—to ensure that the machine accurately counts your choices.
Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) Systems work much the same way as Optical Scan but substitute the physical paper ballot with a touchscreen interface and keyboard for write-ins. DREs store the submitted voting data on a secure flash drive which is removed after the polls close and sent via police officer to a central counting station. Since touchscreen voting devices are still pretty new-fangled, especially for the AARP voting bloc, these machines offer thorough on-screen instructions. Just push the on-screen start button and follow the directions.
Ballot Marking Devices are designed specifically to enfranchise disabled voters. They operate similarly to DREs, employing a touchscreen interface and added audio/visual assistance, but instead of saving the vote onto a flash drive, the BMD marks a physical ballot. The paper ballot is then optically scanned or hand-counted. Yes, hand-counted. It's an archaic practice, but many municipalities (I'm looking at you, New York City) still count their ballots by hand, even in presidential elections. I mean, pens and eyeballs? Really? What is this, 1985?
The Punch Card Ballot is the fourth primary type of voting equipment. You might remember these—and their infamous "hanging chads" from the Presidential
election of 2000. Luckily, the number of counties using these devices has dwindled to just four since that fateful race. Unless you live in the boondocks of Idaho, you are likely never to see one.
In the wake of Sandy, it's tough to say exactly what type of technology you'll encounter in some East Coast voting booths. New York and New Jersey promoted absentee balloting while the elections boards assessed damage to polling places.
In the NYC metropolitan area, accessibility now depends on the borough—you can check here to see if your designated polling place moved within the past 48 hours. Throughout the city, officials' ability to operate the normal polling places depends on the condition of the buildings. The Board of Elections has the latest information on the NY BoE or NJ BoE websites.
Update: According to NBC News, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has just signed an executive order allowing any New York resident to vote at any polling place. However, voters in Rockland, Westchester, Long Island, and NYC will have to vote in their home precincts to participate in their local races.