What’s the Greenest Voting Method?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 13 2012 6:30 AM

Vote Green

What’s the most environmental friendly way to cast your ballot?

Volunteers count ballots from voters during a Republican caucus.
What's the enivronmental impact of all those paper ballots?

Photo by Stan Honda/Getty Images.

Presidential primary season showcases the different voting methods that are out there—caucuses, electronic ballot, paper ballot, absentee voting, and online voting. We know some of these systems are more secure than others, but which is the greenest way to hold an election?

No analyst has ever calculated the full environmental impact of an election, or even of a single vote, so it’s difficult to say much with certainty about green voting practices. One thing seems clear, however: The largest impacts of an election don’t come from voters’ putting pen to ballot, or their fingers to a glowing touch screen. As with so many activities in American life, 90 percent of the damage we do to the environment comes just from showing up. If you drive to the nearest polling place, it hardly matters how you cast your vote, because your car will affect the climate more than any voting machine.

Distance to polling places varies tremendously across the country, and the Lantern is not aware of any study venturing a guess at an average distance. Let’s assume, for the sake of analysis, that a voter travels just one mile to the polling place in the country’s most popular car, which happens to be the Ford F-150 pickup. The vehicle gets 16 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway, so the two-mile round trip to the polls might burn up one-10th of a gallon of gas, which would produce approximately two pounds of carbon dioxide.

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How does that compare with voting by mail? A 2008 study (PDF) by document services company Pitney Bowes estimated that mailing a letter accounts for approximately 0.055 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent. Driving to the polling place, therefore, generates about 18 times as much greenhouse gas as does an absentee ballot on its round trip between the state election commission and your door. So, unless you can walk to your polling place, it’s better for the planet to mail in a vote than to cast it in person.

If you can’t drop your ballot in the mailbox, then the question comes down to whether it’s greener to vote on an electronic touch-screen machines or via paper ballots, which are usually counted by an optical scanner.

Let’s start with the paper. According to the Environmental Paper Network, one ton of ordinary copy-quality paper generates 6,023 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. Since there are approximately 200,000 sheets of paper in a ton, each sheet is responsible for about 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide.

The industrial scanner used to tally the paper ballots doesn’t add much more. Such devices typically consume about 0.2 kilowatts while in use. Even if it took the machine a full five seconds to process a single ballot, we’re only talking about 0.0003 kilowatt-hours of juice and 0.0004 pounds of carbon dioxide. Let’s call that a rounding error, and say that paper ballots cost about 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide per vote.

Paperless voting systems amount to specialized desktop computers, which also consume about 0.2 kilowatts of electricity while in use. Unlike the optical scanners, however, the touch screens typically run continuously during a 12-hour voting day, whether or not a voter is present. If 100 voters used the machine over the stretch, then each vote would be responsible for 0.024 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide—the same as the paper ballot.

This analysis glosses over a few variables, like the manufacture, maintenance, and transport of the scanner and touch-screen computer. Unfortunately, the Lantern is hamstrung by a lack of information. Manufacturers of voting machines do not like talking to the media—even if you’re asking for basic environmental data rather than accusing them of security flaws. And they certainly have not subjected their products to comprehensive life-cycle analyses. If anything, the unconsidered variables might tip the balance slightly in favor of the paper ballots, since each optical scanner can service more voters than the touch screen. Without better information, however, this one remains too close to call.

But when it comes to the climate impacts of voting, there’s a third candidate to consider. In the 2010 midterms, 33 states allowed members of the military and citizens living overseas to cast their ballots via the Internet. If that system were offered universally, it would certainly be superior to both in-person and mail-in voting, from an environmental perspective. Assuming it would take about five minutes to vote on a desktop, each vote would account for just 0.02 pounds of carbon dioxide. The entire voting process would therefore account for less greenhouse gas emissions than even the manufacture of a paper ballot. Plus, younger people—to the extent they bother to vote at all—would be likely to vote on their smartphones, which are far more energy-efficient than a clunky old desktop.

Internet voting is still a long way off, though. The experts the Lantern consulted emphasized that security systems aren’t sufficiently robust or well-studied to take a presidential election completely online. Any potential failures would result in protracted legal battles, anyway, and the atmosphere surely wouldn’t benefit from armies of lawyers crisscrossing the country to plead their clients’ cases.

Still, taking elections online is worthwhile goal over the long term. In the 2008 presidential election, more than 125 million people voted. If everyone one of them generated two pounds of greenhouse gas traveling to and from the polling place, the transport-related emissions alone from the election would have approached the annual emissions of some small countries like Comoros or Dominica. That’s no excuse to sit out the vote, of course. You can always walk, run, or bike to the polling place.

The Green Lantern thanks Alexander Shvartsman of the University of Connecticut and Dan Wallach of Rice University.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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