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The Ottumwa Courrier

Electronic voting machines may not eliminate election problems

Oct. 10, 2006
Courier staff writer

OTTUMWA -- Dr. Douglas Jones seems, at first glance, an unlikely expert for the subject of voting.

Jones is an associate professor in the University of Iowa’s computer sciences department. It’s not the department you usually find people to speak on elections. But the rapid changes in technology over the course of the past several years put people like Jones squarely in the debate. That trend will likely continue as more locations shift to electronic voting machines.

Officials hailed the machines as a solution to the hanging chad questions and questions surrounding the Florida vote of 2000. But the machines themselves raised questions. ...

The doubts are unsettling. ...

“If people don’t trust the elections they start thinking about revolutions and things like that,” Jones said.

The newest voting machines are touch-screens. Jones said they have the same challenges as touch-screens people know better. He pulled out a Palm organizer to illustrate the point.

“This thing drifts out of calibration about once a week,” he said.

Technology is evolving and improving Jones said. The basic problems come from just a few sources. One is the tension between a secret ballot and a transparent process.

“Transparency and secret ballots are literally in conflict. The only way to have complete transparency is if everybody publishes their ballot,” he said.

Electronic voting tends to push the balance toward secret ballots. People can easily check and understand paper ballots. Electronics place that ability beyond most people. Only computer experts have the ability to really understand what’s happening.

That’s not to say paper ballots are perfect.

“The Florida butterfly ballot was an example of what you can do with any voting technology. You can mismanage it,” Jones said. “Far more frequent than fraud in elections are mistakes.”

Wapello County Auditor Phyllis Dean agreed with that assessment. ...

Poll workers are one of the links experts worry about. They’re not professionals and don’t work often. Dean said Iowa tries hard to make sure the workers are ready. ...

Jones also sees the regulations themselves as problems. Voting requires standards. Voting machines require standards. But regulatory agencies generally deal with the industries they regulate far more frequently than the public. The result is development of a close, sometimes too close relationship between the regulators and the companies they keep tabs on. He cited The Economist, which said the “Gamekeeper turns poacher, or at least, helps the poacher.”

“The first thing a vendor does before selling machines is go to an independent testing laboratory. They pay the laboratory and say ‘Test this machine and say it meets federal standards,” ’ Jones said, noting that precisely the same process works for electric lamp sales. “This is in fact the accepted standard across a large section of industries. I don’t think that’s that bad. I think the problem is with the standards themselves. There are serious problems with these standards.”

Jones sees voter verification as the solution. He said studies indicate fraud plummets if as few as 10 percent of voters double check their ballots before officially turning them in. The printouts also allow election officials the opportunity to have hand recounts. Hand recounts have saved some areas from disastrous results when machines malfunctioned or when technicians programmed machines improperly. Standards vary on whether states require machines to give voters a printout.

Jones praised Iowa’s laws, which require emergency paper ballots if the voting machines break. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than having the machines break without a backup plan.

“I really think Iowa’s emergency paper ballots come as close to perfect as you can get,” he said.

Still, Jones preferred solution is a bit different. Technology holds promise. He just wishes officials put the same emphasis on research and development as they do on getting the machines into polling places.

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