In 1975, the election in the Democratic Republic of Congo was determined by the volume of applause. Now, the country uses paper ballots.
But many countries have replaced paper ballots with electronic buttons and still others have taken their elections online.
In deciding how they will vote, countries weigh the speed, accuracy, anonymity and security of various technologies.
For some nations, electronic voting machines (EVMs) represent a chance at heightened accuracy, as well as increased participation due to accessibility for illiterate voters. Others retain the traditional paper and pencil, concerned that EVMs will open doors for hackers and put the democratic process at risk.
See our other coverage of the 2008 U.S. election and its global impact. The slideshow below shows voting technology in several countries around the world.
Here are some sample ballots [PDF]: Latvia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Brazil, Albania and Congo.
- The Gambia: The sound of victory, counting one's marbles
In The Gambia's 2006 presidential election, people cast their votes by dropping marbles into drums painted in the parties' colors and adorned with the candidates' photos. The voting system was designed to accommodate the many illiterate people in the country.
Officials listen for a voter's marble to hit a bell in the drum, preventing multiple votes. If more than one "ping" sounds, more than one marble has been dropped.
Bicycles are banned on voting day because the sound of their bells might confuse voting authorities. Voters also dip their fingers in ink as proof of voting.
In the most recent election, incumbent Yahya Jammeh emerged victorious, though the opposition candidate claimed voter intimidation had occurred.
Presidential election in 2006
Turnout: 59 percent of eligible Gambians voted in the 2006 presidential election.
Photo: Clear marbles take the place of ballots in Gambia’s elections.
- Kenya: "X" marks the vote
In its presidential election on Dec. 27, 2007, Kenya used paper ballots, marked with an “X” and counted by hand.
Eager Kenyans waited by radios for four days to hear the tally of the votes. Election officials altered votes and ignored monitors and irregularities – like an impossible turnout of 115 percent in one province.
Violent clashes erupted as a result of the corruption and uncertainty of the tight race between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga.
Presidential election in 2007
Turnout: Voter turnout was inaccurately reported in many areas, although firsthand accounts suggest it was higher than the 59 percent turnout of the previous election.
Photo: A ballot box in Kenya.
- Afghanistan: Voting against rugged terrain and Taliban threats
In Afghanistan, 49 percent of men and 79 percent of women are illiterate and face challenges at the polls. Paper ballots are designed with simplicity in mind – using symbols, photographs and numbers.
Leading up to the country's first presidential election in 2004, colorful cartoons, graphic posters and radio ads spread the word about voting procedures to the population.
Voters mark their choice with pens and then have their thumb dipped in indelible ink. Election results often take weeks because ballot boxes from remote regions must be transferred by trucks and helicopters. Polling stations are also set up for the millions of refugees in neighboring countries.
Afghanistan is currently gearing up for its second presidential election in 2009, even as violence increases.
Presidential election in 2004
Turnout: Despite the rugged terrain and Taliban threats, 70 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots.
Photo: Afghan women register to vote before the October 2004 election.
- Malaysia: Paper ballots pressed by the power of bloggers
Malaysia has implemented some new features to increase voting security.
This year, the country replaced black iron boxes with transparent ballot boxes and began marking voters with indelible ink to prevent multiple votes.
Malaysia still uses a traditional paper ballots that voters mark with a cross, but bloggers have become a powerful force on the Malaysian political scene.
March 2008 election
Turnout: About 70 percent of Malaysia’s 10.9 million eligible voters cast ballots in March’s election.
Photo: Political posters from the 2008 election in Malaysia.
- The Netherlands: Hack the vote
A month before the 2006 general election in the Netherlands, a citizen group of hackers went on Dutch television to showcase the vulnerability of the country’s electronic voting machines. They demonstrated how they played video games on the machine and staged an electoral fraud by inserting a microchip loaded with code.
Watch how it unfolded on Dutch television.
As the machines in question – those produced by Dutch company Nedap – were used by 90 percent of the Dutch population and had also been purchased by Ireland, there was understandable panic. The Dutch government immediately promised a complete overhaul of its certification process for EVMs, but in the meantime the country has returned to paper ballots and red pencils.
National election in 2006
Turnout: 80 percent of eligible voters participated in the last national election in 2006.
Photo: A paper ballot used in the Netherlands.
- United States: Haunted by hanging chads
The 2000 presidential election put voting technology at the forefront of Americans’ minds. Florida’s problems on election night – with confusing “butterfly” ballots and errors due to hanging chads – contributed to subsequent recounts and a months-long controversy. A Supreme Court ruling ending the recounts led to George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore.
Efforts to streamline the voting process increased in the wake of the 2000 election, though reports of data irregularities plagued the 2004 election as well. In the 2008 election, at least 24 states are using electronic voting in some form – but early voters are already reporting flaws. And Florida is in the headlines once again – this year, the U.S. will test Internet voting for overseas voters registered in the state’s Okaloosa County.
2004 presidential election
Turnout: 64 percent of the eligible Americans voted in the 2004 presidential election.
Photo: One of the “butterfly” ballots that generated controversy in 2000’s election.
- Estonia: With the click of a mouse
In 2007, Estonia became the first country to allow online voting in a nationwide election, following two years of a pilot program.
Modeled after online banking, the system requires smart-chip enabled ID cards. Estonians can digitally register with the card, punch in a PIN number and cast their vote.
Online voting is only available in advance, so Estonians have to go to polling stations on election day itself.
The 2007 election
Turnout: 61 percent of eligible Estonians voted in the 2007 election. Three percent voted over the Internet.
Photo: Estonians at a rally for Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who won the 2007 election.
- India: From rubber stamps to high-tech electronics
India held its first fully electronic election in 2004 – replacing the rubber stamps and stores of ink of previous years.
To vote, staff at the polling station press a button to release a ballot, then the voter presses the button next to a candidate's name.
The electronic voting machines (EVMs) have proved easier to understand for the more than 40 percent of India’s population that is illiterate.
India’s 2004 election
Turnout: 58.3 percent of eligible voters turned out for India’s 2004 election.
Photo: A driver campaigns in India’s 2004 election.
- Brazil: Leader in electronic elections
Brazil was one of the first countries to adopt electronic voting in 1996, and held its (and the world’s) first fully electronic election in 2000. Votes are counted in a mere six hours.
The country also hopes to implement digital and facial recognition features over the next 10 years to enhance security.
Turnout: Voting is compulsory for Brazilians over 18 years old and under 70. Those who fail to justify their absence both within Brazil and abroad are fined.
Photo: Brazil’s voting machines now use Linux.
Sample ballots courtesy of The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network under a Creative Commons license. All photos courtesy of Flickr users under a Creative Commons license. Find Worldfocus on Flickr here and contribute your internationally-themed pictures to our collection.