Computer Scientists and Political Scientists Seek to Create a Fiasco-Free
In the wake of 2000, researchers focus on the touchy technology of voting
By FLORENCE OLSEN
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.
Since then, a team of political-science and engineering professors at
the two institutions has been studying voting technology. Part of what
they have found is not so much a well-defined engineering problem as the
sum of many administrative shortcomings in precinct polling, absentee voting,
and voter registration; many election officials agree. The scholars have
also thought about how technology can provide solutions to a range of election-related
Four months into the Caltech/M.I.T. project, the researchers have completed
a preliminary analysis of voting-system technologies used in the past four
presidential elections. It is arguably the most extensive study ever made
of voting systems' reliability and of how well various technologies help
or hinder voters in expressing their preferences.
The study examined hand-counted paper ballots, which are used in some
rural counties, and mechanical lever machines, which are used in many places
but are no longer manufactured. The researchers were surprised to find
that direct electronic recording, the most high-tech voting technology
in use today, has produced just as many spoiled, unmarked, or uncounted
ballots as the mechanical punch-card machines.
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, and college presidents got involved as
lawyers sought their opinions in affidavits, commissions asked for their
testimony in hearings, and public officials appointed them to lead committees.
But none garnered more attention than the presidents of M.I.T. and Caltech,
who promised that their researchers would tackle the voting-technology
problems brought to light by the disastrous performance of Florida's punch-card
The team of Caltech and M.I.T. researchers is full of inventive and
analytical minds, with a wide range of experience. Stephen Ansolabehere,
a professor of political science at M.I.T., is the principal author of
the voting-technologies report. He is also the M.I.T. project manager for
the 11-member research team, which includes seven M.I.T. faculty members.
Thomas R. Palfrey, a professor of economics and political science, is
Mr. Ansolabehere's counterpart at Caltech, where four faculty members work
on the voting project. "If we were lawyers, it would be called pro bono
work," he says.
The team also includes Nicholas Negroponte, a professor of media technology
at M.I.T., and Jehoshua Bruck, a professor of computation, neural systems,
and electrical engineering at Caltech.
"It's unusual for social scientists to work with engineers," says Mr.
Ansolabehere, whose necktie and white shirt contrast sharply with the black
T-shirt and black pants worn by Ted Selker, an associate professor of media
and arts technology at M.I.T. When Mr. Selker was at the International
Business Machines Corporation, he directed the research group that designed
the "eraser-tip" joystick that is built into the keyboard of the I.B.M.
ThinkPad. "I'm an inventor," he says, "and I always wanted to be a professor."
The initial hope was that the researchers would, if nothing else, produce
a reliable voting machine. Election officials say the makers of voting
systems have put too little money into research to improve existing voting
technologies, much less develop new ones. The manufacturers currently produce
only three types of machines -- punch card, optical scan, and direct electronic
recording, or D.R.E. If the engineering brains at Caltech and M.I.T. could
invent a better voting machine, says Paul W. Craft, Florida's chief of
election systems, "it would be useful to Florida; it would be useful to
D.R.E. machines are programmable computers with touch-sensitive screens
or keypads that a voter presses to cast a ballot. Election officials like
them because they count votes quickly and eliminate the expense of printing
ballots. But studies also show that people need more time to vote when
they use D.R.E. compared with other methods.
In November 2000, only about 9 percent of the nation's counties, comprising
little more than 10 percent of the electorate, used D.R.E. systems. But
their use is expected to increase as more counties try to modernize their
voting equipment in the aftermath of the electoral confusion. Ms. Harris,
Florida's secretary of state, has proposed that the state spend $200-million
to develop its own D.R.E. system for use in 2004.
Public opinion increasingly favors voting on computers and even on the
Internet. Election officials feel pressure to invest millions of dollars
in computerized and networked voting systems. A survey by the Pew Research
Center for the People and the Press shows that more than 40 percent of
Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer voting over the Internet; it is an
age group comfortable with computers and computer networks. But the Caltech/M.I.T.
team, along with other computer scientists in academe, say their research
raises concerns that those systems are still far from being user-friendly,
and that they could, in fact, produce an entirely different and equally
thorny election crisis.
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."
Ms. Mercuri attracted a lot of attention after the election because
of the arguments in her dissertation in computer and information science
at the University of Pennsylvania -- "Electronic Vote Tabulation: Checks
and Balances" -- which she defended in October, two weeks before Election
The manufacturers, she says, claim but cannot prove that their computerized
systems protect both the secrecy and the integrity of votes. System logs
can show whether a computer has been tampered with -- but those same logs
also can be used to identify how individual citizens voted.
"It's very, very difficult to maintain system security, maintain system
logs, and provide the voter with the secret ballot as required," says Mr.
Craft, the Florida election-systems chief. He agrees with most of what
Ms. Mercuri writes, with one exception. "She seems to be saying you shouldn't
use computers to conduct elections, and I don't agree with that."
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. The
researchers suspect user-unfriendly voting machines in general as the primary
reason that voters spoil their ballots by voting for more than one presidential
candidate, or that some ballots register no vote at all for president.
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. "People are laughing and calling me a
Luddite," she says, "and here Caltech and M.I.T. come out with the same
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.
"The machines have [failed] and do fail," says Ms. Mercuri, who serves
as an election official in Mercer County, N.J. On Election Day 2000, for
example, a few major-party candidates received no votes at all in some
New Jersey jurisdictions that were using new D.R.E. equipment. When election
officials there raised questions, she says, the manufacturer maintained
that no votes had been lost -- the explanation, it said, was that "no votes
were cast for those candidates."
Computer experts have known for some time about programming problems
with computerized vote-counting systems, says Lance J. Hoffman, a professor
of computer science at George Washington University. "I very much fear
the disappearing electrons," he says.
Indeed, the Caltech/M.I.T. study confirms several government and academic
studies, one of which warned that relying on computerized vote-tabulating
systems that are lacking in adequate safeguards would be comparable to
"waiting for Chernobyl."
The original mandate for the project was to come up with a reliable
machine, one that would count every vote accurately and reduce the risk
of machine malfunction or fraud. In the first phase of the project, says
Mr. Ansolabehere, the Caltech and M.I.T. researchers have chosen to take
on "a whole bunch of little nagging problems that could be solved with
little technological innovations," like making county voter-registration
files accessible online in precinct polling places, and giving election
administrators a simple spreadsheet tool for developing budgets to pay
for voting-equipment upgrades.
"We're really at the stage of developing ideas for public consumption,"
he says. One of biggest contributions of the Caltech/M.I.T. project to
the public debate, he believes, will be its collection and analysis of
data on the cost to counties of running elections.
"Nobody knows the administrative costs associated with the different
kinds of voting machinery," he says. "Punch cards are supposed to be cheap.
They're not." And D.R.E. machines cost $3,500 to $4,000 each, a price that
must be brought down, he says.
Election officials tend to buy expensive voting systems and hang onto
them for 60 years, creating a large, outdated inventory. Only recently
did Election Systems and Software Inc., of Omaha, one of the largest companies
in the business, announce that it would begin leasing its equipment. That's
a promising development, Mr. Ansolabehere says. "The business end of things
is changing very quickly."
The research phase of the Caltech/M.I.T. project, financed by the universities
and by a $250,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, will
end in June.
The universities will then distribute their research reports, as well
as any useful software they develop, through organizations including the
National Association of State Election Directors.
What is to happen in the next phase of the project, when the engineers
will get their turn, is still uncertain. "When we went into this, we were
hopeful that electronic machines would be a good platform," says Caltech's
Mr. Palfrey. But the group has found programming flaws in D.R.E. systems,
along with characteristics that they don't like. For instance, people often
read a computer screen by moving their finger across the text. But if they
do that on a touch screen, the first name they touch may get recorded as
a vote and be hard to change, says Mr. Ansolabehere. As a result, he says,
"the voter gets frustrated, cancels the session, and walks out."
The group's study, he adds, shows that voters did well using anything
tactile, like paper ballots or lever machines. "People didn't do very well
with anything that had to do with computers."
The Caltech and M.I.T. engineers may try to create a prototype for a
new voting machine, or even several prototypes. Developing the prototypes
could take up to two years. Probably none of the new systems would be an
updated version of the simple lever machine, although the engineers have
toyed with that idea. In the Media Lab at M.I.T., Mr. Ansolabehere says
"they have a [900-pound] lever machine that they're trying to make electronic
-- without electrocuting anybody."
The engineers might also try to improve upon optical scanners for hand-marked
ballots, which he says are one of the best-performing voting technologies
in the study. "One of the ideas we're playing with is an electronic machine
with a paper interface," he adds.
Given the interest of many election officials in D.R.E. voting equipment,
the Caltech/M.I.T. group is keen to determine how those machines could
be made easy for voters to use, cheap for manufacturers to build, and reliable
for election officials to work with -- meaning that they record, count,
and report votes accurately.
The group will seek to answer a basic question about electronic machines:
Do they have inherent flaws that make them forever unreliable as voting
systems? Or does the current, immature technology have the potential to
improve over time? After all, Mr. Ansolabehere notes, D.R.E. electronic
voting machines have some good features: Ballots can be programmed in many
languages, and blind people, using earphones, can vote on electronic systems.
Mr. Selker, the invention-minded professor at M.I.T., wants to build
a flawless voting machine. "The exciting thing for me," he says, "would
be to make a system that makes it very difficult for the naysayers to say
that a cheaper, more reliable system isn't possible."
Section: Information Technology
Copyright © 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education