Cost of Optical Scans vs Touch Screens

Operating Cost Comparison
for Different Types of Voting Systems

Optical Scanners in Wake and Durham Counties, and Direct Record Electronic Voting Machines in Mecklenburg and Guilford Counties

By Joyce McCloy, www.ncvoter.net

Touchscreen Voting Increases Election Costs in North Carolina
A Comparison of Total Annual Expenditures for TouchScreens and Optical Scanners

Not only have computer scientists advised the North Carolina Legislature that touch screen voting machines are less reliable and accurate than optical scan equipment, we find that they are more costly to own and operate. Clearly, this is no way to run an election.
Opponents to voter verified paper ballots often cited costs of printing paper ballots as an excuse for using paperless all electronic voting machines. They also used the argument that optical scan ballots take up more space, therefore increasing costs. We were intrigued, and set out to seek the truth.

The NC Coalition for Verified Voting, in 2005 – completed a study of annual expenditures of the election departments of four North Carolina counties. We found that the cost of using touch screen voting or direct recording machines in Guilford and Mecklenburg county was about 30-40% higher than the cost of using optical scan equipment in Wake and Durham county. This means that not only are touch screens more expensive to acquire, they are also more expensive to operate year after year.

Below is cost study of years 1999-2004 prepared by NC Coalition for Verified Voting:
ncvoter cost study



The expenditure data for Durham, Guilford, Mecklenburg, and Wake Counties were provided by their county finance departments. For the counties other than Mecklenburg, the net expenditures were determined by subtracting the annual revenue from the annual expenditures. The information for number of registered voters was supplied by each county’s Director of Elections.Further, you will see that Wake County, an optical scan county – spent about $ 1 Million less than Mecklenburg, which has only 10,000 more voters but used the direct record voting machines in 2004. If in 2004 Guilford County had used optical scan equipment, instead of touch screens, it could have saved about $650,000.

Other cost studies

The North Carolina Coalition for Verified Voting was inspired to do this study after hearing of the work of Rosemarie Myerson, who compared six years of operating expenses of the election offices of two Florida counties: Sarasota with punch cards for 3 years and then touch screen DREs for 3 years to Manatee with optical scanners for 6 years. The results showed that the operating costs for DREs were about 1.5 times more than the operating costs for either of the other two types of voting systems.
Durham County Annual Expenditures 
Guilford County Annual Expenditures

Mecklenburg County Annual Expenditures
Wake County Annual Expenditures

Studies of the costs were inspired by the experience of one Florida County’s account of huge expenses following the purchase of new touch screen voting machines. Miami Dade County experienced a seven fold increase in costs for the 2004 general election over the costs of the 2000 election. The County Supervisor of Elections, Lester Sola recommended scrapping the new touchscreen voting machines. He found that the county would save over $13 million in the next five years if they purchased optical scanners and removed the touch screens from service, even while paying off the $20 million outstanding debts for the touch screens.

One factor that may explain why having touch screens cost so much more than optical scanners is because the county has to own and maintain so many more machines. We estimate that one optical scanner can count handle six voter?s votes a minute (or 360 per hour) as they are cast but because it takes a voter at least three minutes to vote with touch screens, it would take 20 touch screens to perform per hour as well as optical scanners.  Additionally, touch screen machines use thermal paper ballots – both require special handling and climate controlled storage.  Justin Moore, of Duke University Computer Science Department found that counties using touch screen machines required 20% more poll workers, and about 10% more precincts.


A true cost comparison of voting machines cannot focus just on ballot printing costs. All of the Boards of Elections costs must be considered. This includes staff salaries, staff benefits, training expenditures, equipment programming, maintenance, storage, advertising, printing costs, postage and storage.
NEW – Verified Voting has prepared an update for years 2005-2008 
NC Voter Cost Study 2004_2008
Supporting documents:Dr. Rebecca Mercuri recommends optical scan voting to the NC State Legislature. Testimony

Justin Moore, Duke University on touchscreen technology and manpower needed. PowerPoint

Miami Dade Elections Supervisor recommends ditching new touchscreen machines. Report page 12

Punch Card and Electronic Voting Machines in Sarasota County, Florida and Optical Scanners in Manatee County, Florida. Compare

Find out how to do your own cost study analysis – see Voters Unite