The No. 1 thing you need to know before heading out to vote

For most Americans, voting is the only time we have a direct input into the way out government is run, so it's critical that we do everything possible to make sure that our vote is counted. Over the past couple of weeks, DVICE has been investigating voting machines in the USA, and while illegal machine tampering has received much of the attention, in truth, far more votes are thrown out due to screwups by voters themselves.

For every one of the five basic voting technologies used today, there are ways for voters to make honest mistakes. Whatever machines are being used in your county, hit the Continue jump to find out the most important thing you need to know to ensure your vote is counted properly.



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Optical Scan
Most of us learned to use optical-scan forms back in school, when we took standardized tests such as the SAT. The instructions usually called for filling in a circle or completing an arrow with a No. 2 pencil, and it is with our choice of writing tool where we can get into trouble in the voting booth. Unlike with those school tests, you are allowed to fill out an optical-scan election ballot with an ink pen, but that might not be such a swift idea. Tests have shown that some machines can misread ink marked ballots due to the reflectivity of the ink. While ink might sound more resistant to tampering, experts recommend sticking with that good old-fashioned No. 2 pencil.



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Electronic Touchscreen
It's hard to make simple mistakes with a properly functioning touchscreen voting machine, as most have graphics that clearly indicate each of your choices as you make them. This allows you to check your selections and make corrections before you lock in the vote. The problem is that these machines are also where many cases of equipment screwups have been concentrated. Therefore, it's critical that you double check your selections on the display to make sure that the names listed are the same ones you entered, and if your machine produces a paper trail, you need to check that carefully, too.



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Lever Machines
Seeming a bit like a slide rule in a world of quad-core computers, Nov. 4 will mark the last hurrah for this ancient technology, still being used in New York State. While the mechanics of the machine won't let you vote for two candidates for one office, it will let you lock in your vote even if you forgot to make a selection in some contests. The biggest problem, however, tends to be with ballot initiatives, as the levers for them are often stuck down in one of the lower corners of the panel. On election day, many voters tend to miss these levers, resulting in a lower vote total for these measures.



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Punch Cards
Unless you live in rural Idaho you won't see one of these machines, and most people feel that's a good thing, especially when they remember the terms "hanging chad" and "butterfly ballot." Just like the old lever machines in New York, this is another ancient technology that's thankfully on the way out. If you're a Gem State voter facing one of these, all I can suggest is that you make sure that your stylus is lined up with the correct hole, and that you make each hole firmly and deliberately. Then make sure you get rid of all the punched chads.



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Hand-Counted Paper Ballot
Not to be confused with optically scanned paper ballots, hand-counted paper ballots are about as foolproof as it gets. Still, there are a few ways you could mess up. While marking your ballot clearly and unambiguously is obviously a no-brainer, the main thing to watch for is that you don't mistakenly mark more than one person for a single office.