Following the Paper Trail

Following the Paper Trail

A new report by details how five states that implemented electronic voting have chosen or are considering statewide paper-based optical scan systems. 

“Back to Paper” explores the process by which California, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Ohio – having adopted electronic voting systems – subsequently decided to de-certify, re-examine or re-think their use.

Although it focuses on five states, the report describes a growing trend. Six years and millions of dollars into a major overhaul of the U.S. election system, a number of states are contemplating returning to paper-based voting systems after failed or troubled experiments with newer voting technology. Even as bills in Congress have stalled, nearly half of all states have adopted requirements for voter-verified paper with electronic voting and/or the use of paper-based voting systems, including optical-scan machines.

In the five states that are the subject of the case study, problems at the polls, pressure from voter integrity groups and rising concern among lawmakers prompted leaders to scrap – or in one case, strongly consider scrapping – recent purchases of direct-recording electronic (DRE) systems in favor of paper-based optical scanners.

“While the national enthusiasm for a return to paper is undoubtedly a reaction to lingering concerns about electronic voting, it also mirrors the same push into electronic voting we saw in the wake of HAVA," said Doug Chapin, director of, referring to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which mandates that all states and localities upgrade many aspects of their election procedures. "What remains to be seen is whether states come to see paper-based voting as the right decision - or just the best decision right now."

While the five states' decisions reflected different circumstances and timing, they all shared some common threads:

  • Problems at the polls with electronic machines and/or poll workers operating them in one or more elections.
  • A bipartisan, usually cooperative effort by each state's chief election official and lawmakers to enact legislation and/or fund a purchase of replacement voting systems.
  • State-funded and/or private studies that questioned the integrity of DRE systems.

The five states could soon be joined by Maryland—which was among the first in the country to purchase a statewide DRE voting system--Virginia and New Jersey. Lawmakers there have announced plans to phase out DREs without voter-verified paper trails, though the timelines for compliance vary.

As the report notes, the future of voting in the United States is moving decisively back to paper. With the phasing out of paperless DRE voting in the five states detailed in the report, only 13 states now allow the use of DREs without voter-verified paper audit trails, and three of those are slated to make the switch before the 2012 presidential election.

The report, the 21st in a series of election reform issue briefs and case studies, is available at To request a printed copy, please contact is a project of The Pew Center on the States, a division of The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Center examines effective policy approaches to critical issues facing states by conducting highly credible research, bringing together diverse perspectives, analyzing states' experiences to determine what works and what doesn't, and collaborating with other funders and organizations to shine a spotlight on nonpartisan, pragmatic solutions.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit