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The Chronicle of Higher Education
April 20, 2001

Computer Scientists and Political Scientists Seek to Create a Fiasco-Free Election Day

In the wake of 2000, researchers focus on the touchy technology of voting


Katherine Harris isn't the only one red-faced about November's election turmoil in Florida. David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology, says that Americans are embarrassed by technology failures, and that academic institutions must "help repair the voting process so that we won't see anything like this again."

In December, Mr. Baltimore offered Caltech's brainpower to help fix the nation's voting-technology problems. Joining him in the offer was Charles M. Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "A nation that can send a man to the moon and put a reliable A.T.M. machine on every corner has no excuse," he said. The presidents pledged that their researchers would produce a voting machine that would be reliable, affordable, and easy to use.


Election Day 2000 provided academics with a rare opportunity to play visible roles in a tense political drama and its aftermath. Computer-science professors, political scientists, ... But none garnered more attention than the presidents of M.I.T. and Caltech, ...


Voting by secret ballot on computers and the Internet poses unique privacy and data-security problems. No solutions are in sight, but computer scientists find such challenges appealing, says Rebecca Mercuri, a visiting lecturer in computer science at Bryn Mawr College. "We like problems like that, that we can't figure out solutions to."


Some academics maintain that state agencies responsible for elections rely too heavily on the manufacturers of electronic-voting systems for assurances that their equipment will count every vote accurately. One of those critics is Douglas W. Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, who is chairman of the Iowa Board of Examiners for Voting Machines and Electronic Voting Systems. Mr. Jones, who testified on voting irregularities in January before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in Tallahassee, Fla., calls for greater scrutiny of voting systems by the Federal Election Commission and state-election officials.

Voting machines approved for use in many states are "utterly unacceptable," he says, "and are only approved because the agencies that regulate voting machines in those states are fundamentally naive about the vulnerabilities of the technologies they have chosen." For example, he notes, many states have approved the use of D.R.E. systems without requiring an examination of the software embedded in the machines.

Ms. Mercuri favors having the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology certify the accuracy and integrity of any computer-based voting system used in federal elections. States would permit counties to purchase only certified systems.

The analysis done by M.I.T. and Caltech avoids the issue of fraud and focuses instead on equipment failures and poorly designed systems. ...

In analyzing the performance of voting machines in the past four presidential elections, the group found an uncomfortably high problem rate -- what they called the residual voting rate -- for punch-card voting machines.

Based on data from about two-thirds of all counties, the rate averaged 3 percent for ballots cast with punch-card systems.

But the researchers were equally disconcerted to see the same problem rate showing up for electronic machines. The average rate for the other voting technologies -- paper ballots, lever machines, and optically scanned ballots -- was 2 percent.

"Just as with punch cards," says M.I.T.'s Mr. Ansolabehere, "we see a potential for catastrophe with electronic machines."

In February, faculty members on the Caltech/M.I.T. team published their preliminary data. Ms. Mercuri says the statistics confirmed what she and other computer scientists "had believed in our gut": that old-fashioned lever machines and paper ballots are the most accurate and easily understood voting technologies in use today. ...

Both of the older technologies, she says, have safeguards that are lacking in punch-card machines and touch-screen D.R.E. voting systems: Should a hand recount of votes become necessary, paper ballots make it easy. Votes cast on lever machines can't be recounted, but the machines can be inspected by opening them up to see, for instance, whether a gear has slipped or been tampered with. If problems are discovered, the counting errors are usually limited to only one or a few machines, she says. But a programming error in the D.R.E. software that creates ballots or counts votes affects not just one but every machine in the county. If a recount is needed, there are no paper ballots to serve as backups.