[Editor's note: This story was updated on June 29, 2012]

Oregon took a new approach to helping disabled citizens cast their vote — in two special elections, one held last November and the other this January, voters had the option to complete their ballots on an Apple iPad.

During the November 2011 election, five iPads were made available in Oregon’s first congressional district, which includes all or part of five counties in the northwestern region of the state: Washington, Columbia, Multnomah, Yamhill and Clatsop. The goal of the pilot, led by the Secretary of State’s Elections Division, was to determine whether Oregon should use iPads for assisted voting statewide in the future. The November 2011 primary special election marked the first time a state used the Apple tablets in the voting process.

Eighty-nine voters from the five counties used the iPads to mark their ballots during the November special election, said Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown. As the pilot’s first phase concluded, she called the experiment a success.

“We received much higher usage on this technology than all the years combined [using] accessible computer stations,” Brown said.

But in at least two counties — Columbia and Multnomah — where the iPad was available, citizens didn’t requestto use them.

Although the iPads were used to fill out the ballots, they were not used for electronic voting. Once a voter completed a ballot, it was printed on a portable printer, Brown said.

According to local media, election workers took the iPads to assisted living centers to help those who wanted to complete their ballot on the tablet. The workers also brought the portable printers so the iPad ballots could be counted.

Apple loaned the iPads to Oregon for the special election, but the state needed more than just the loaner devices for individuals to officially vote — it needed software. The state paid $75,000 for software used for voting assistance that was installed on the iPads. Brown said that in the future, Oregon plans to use the software to provide accessible voting for military personnel and citizens who are overseas.

On Brown’s official blog, one Washington County resident said that using the iPad in the November 2011 election was a better alternative to conventional voting because the font size can be adjusted to make the ballot easier to read. At that time, the resident said she’d use the iPad again for the January 2012 election.

In another instance during the November election, however, Brown said a voter with cerebral palsy encountered difficulty because the proper control device wasn’t available to help him mark the ballot on the iPad. For the January election, special paddles were made available for voters who required additional assistance.

January Election Brings New Results

On Jan. 31, another special election was held, giving the state the chance to execute phase two of the iPad pilot. During the election, Brown said 48 voters with disabilities used the tablet for completing their ballot.

Andrea Cantu-Schomus, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Secretary of State, said five iPads also were used in the January election. The state purchased those devices with $3,000 from the federal Help America Vote Act fund after Apple didn’t extend the lease on the iPads that were used in November. She said other tablets were tested to determine if different platforms could be employed in the future, but none were used for voting assistance during the election.

Elections officials learned during testing that other devices, like tablets running Microsoft’s Windows 7, were in some cases a better option for the voting process, said Steve Trout, director of elections for the Oregon secretary of state.

“Everything worked fine, I think we learned there is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Trout said. “Different platforms have different advantages.”

During the January special election, Trout said, officials discovered that the iPad was better suited for visually impaired voters since the device has a built-in function that reads ballot contents aloud.

The state also tested technology that would serve voters with limited mobility — paddles connected to a tablet that can be used for completing a ballot. Trout said that while the paddles did not work with iPads, the technology functioned on a Windows 7 tablet.

Other changes for the January pilot included a “ballot-on-demand” printer that simplified the process for entering ballots into the state’s voting system, which actually tallies the votes. In the November election, ballots marked on an iPad were printed on paper that could not be read by the voting system. Votes on those ballots had to be transferred by hand onto machine-readable paper ballots, which were then fed into the voting system.

The ballot-on-demand printers produced machine-readable paper ballots directly from the iPads, eliminating the manual transfer. “It saved us a lot of time, and gave us a lot better data [and] fewer errors from marking those duplication boards,” Trout said. “We were able to have faster and better results.”

So what lies ahead for Oregon’s voting process? The state elections office would like to make iPads and other tablet technology available statewide in all 36 counties, Brown said.

“First, we want to hear from the [disabled] community that iPad [assisted] voting is convenient and accessible,” Brown said, “and then we simply need to purchase the iPads for the surrounding counties.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.