Election Day is here and the last four years have ushered in a whole new set of tools for voters. The growing popularity of mobile devices, social media, and technology in general has brought apps to monitor political campaigns, easier ways to register to vote, and overall improved access to the election process.

Thirty-one states now use electronic voting machines, according to techhive.com, while the remaining 19 rely on paper ballots or punch cards. Widespread adoption of e-voting began in earnest shortly after the 2000 presidential election revealed the many ways in which outdated punch card and lever voting systems were vulnerable to fraud.

But the same can be said for electronic systems, as electronic votes often leave no paper record (depending on the jurisdiction), techhive.com reports.

According to Kim Nelson, executive director for e-government at Microsoft, the company is working in the e-voting space to help government save money using technology, while simultaneously improving efficiency. The public also benefits from tools that make it easier to get to relevant election information.

Microsoft's increased interest in government coincided with the passage of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act in 2010, which aimed to streamline the absentee voting process for those casting ballots abroad. In partnership with electronic voting provider Democracy Live, the company is supporting one of the organization's projects, LiveBallot, which allows users to obtain ballots online, specifically tailored to their location and situation. By entering a home address, users can download a ballot and access polling location information and voter registration dates.

Another way to expand access and reduce the costs of elections is through the use of mobile devices, Nelson said. In Oregon, the state is using 10 Samsung Series 7 PC tablets running Windows 8, instead of traditional polling machines, to serve voters with disabilities. “Voting machines in general are very expensive,” she said. “Machines cost tens of thousands of dollars -- they're very difficult to maintain, they're expensive to maintain and they only get used a few times a year.” While many of the voting machines purchased by states in the early 2000s were funded by the Help America Vote Act, states can no longer rely on the federal government for technology upgrades, given the state of the economy. With devices like Windows tablets, Nelson argued, states need only to make a trip to their local electronics store.

As private technology firms gain more interest in the public sector, the landscape is also changing. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced last month a transition from BlackBerry to iPhone for its more than 17,600 users. Microsoft, Android, Apple and RIM device manufacturers are constantly jockeying for dominance in the public sector.

Also new in 2012 is the growth in the number of states offering online voter registration. About a dozen states now offer it, including Washington state, which uses a Facebook application developed by Microsoft. “There are 150 million U.S. users on Facebook, many of them young users. If you really want to get brand-new voters, the best way to do that is through Facebook,” Nelson said.

Microsoft also made headlines recently when it launched a new election news site on Bing that allows users to adjust the content they receive based on their political persuasion. The website, Bing Elections 2012, also provides data on voting locations and methods, ballot explanations and current polling data. Likewise, Microsoft was a partner in the development of VoterHub, a mobile app that provides information to citizens about voting and the political process. 

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.