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The Iowa City Press-Citizen

UI prof is 'Yoda' of voting machines

Sunday October 1, 2006
By Hieu Pham

Douglas Jones

Douglas Jones didn't know how to respond to the Washington, D.C., lobbyist who a few years ago called him "the Yoda of voting machines."

"It was strange," said Jones, a University of Iowa associate professor of computer science. "I wasn't sure how to take it."

Since the voting debacle in Florida that marked the presidential election in 2000, Jones has become a leading expert on voting security in the United States.

His early critique of voting machines has led to testimonies before the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the United States House Committee on Science and the Federal Election Commission on voting issues. Last year, he also participated as an election observer for the presidential election in Kazakhstan.

Most recently, Douglas was asked to testify in a Colorado case where voters challenged and won a lawsuit against the use of unreliable voting machines.

The attention comes as a bigger surprise to Jones that to anyone else.

"It was an accident of sorts," said Jones, whose former research was based on real-time control systems, an area he described as "highly technical and one that no one has ever heard of."

But in 1994, former Iowa Secretary of State Paul Tate's request for a voting security expert to form the Iowa State Board of Voting Machines intrigued Jones, who volunteered without really wanting the job.

"I thought, 'Well, I've done the computer security and wouldn't it be awful if no one else volunteered?"' he said.

As it turned out, Jones was the only one to volunteer for the position.

"Those first six years is when I learned how the 'big system' worked (and) by 1997, I found signficant problems in the machines that were presented to us," he said. "By spring of 2000, I was convinced that someone had to be more vocal."

Jones posted a critical report on the Internet and was a guest speaker at a few UI events. After the 2000 election, Jones said everyone looking for people who studied election problems came calling -- especially because Jones was one of the few critics of politics' electronic future.

"I haven't had the time to do any research, except on voting," he said.

Last year, Jones also helped launch a National Science Foundation project called ACCURATE, or A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections. The five-year project includes researchers from UI, Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, SRI International, Rice University and John Hopkins University.

ACCURATE examines electronic voting, computer security and public policy issues relating to the use of computers and human-computer interaction.

"We have to design technology that's extraordinarily easy to use. Our current voting regulations don't look at how complicated it is," he said.

Aside from technology, Jones saidthe American election system is the most complicated in the world.

He said on average, there are four elections a year in the U.S., with nearly eight different issues on one ballot. In other countries, it is not uncommon to see just one issue on a ballot.

"We have a lot of work to do ... it's the pieces that are the problem," he said. "We need to deal with immediate problems to get to the big picture."

Jones said hand-marked paper ballots that can be counted by local machines are probably the best ballot choice.

"It's a far cry from tinkering with real neat technology," he said. "But there's a tremendous feeling that I'm doing something useful because it addresses something central in our democracy."

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