TO BUILD A BETTER ELECTION
OFFICIALS SAY MACHINES ONLY PART OF SOLUTION;
THOROUGH TRAINING VITAL FOR RELIABLE VOTE COUNTS
By Seth Borenstein, Knight Ridder Newspapers
After Florida's election fiasco, politicians, pundits and professors figured the way to get rid of hanging chads and dangling vote counts was with a big byte of better technology.
"A country that has put a man on the moon and an ATM machine on every corner has no excuse" for not devising a more reliable voting system, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles Vest said, unveiling a joint California Institute of Technology-MIT project to look into improving how America votes.
It's a vision that's launching lots of enterprises. Last week, three computer giants - Unisys, Dell and Microsoft - announced they were working together on a new electronic voting machine. Three different blue ribbon panels of experts also called for more money for voting machinery. This week, California will hold an expo on voting technology.
But most experts say machines aren't the solution.
Most of the time when a vote count is wrong, it's not a mechanical failure, experts agree. Usually it's the fault of the machine's operators or a lack of clear instructions - laws or state standards - for them to follow, say top voting specialists.
"It's totally a people problem," said Rebecca Mercuri, president of Notable Software, a computer security consulting firm, and a lecturer at Bryn Mawr College in suburban Philadelphia. "It really is not a technology problem."
"Technology is part of the answer, but it's not the only answer," said Jim Adler, the president of VoteHere.net of Bellevue, Wash., which markets an Internet-based voting system. "It's a much more difficult process than dropping a piece of technology on a county election official and hoping they operate it correctly."
Building a voting system that works properly is harder than building a rocket, said Adler, a former rocket scientist. "Rocket science doesn't have the political overtones that elections do."
Consider the cases of Hawaii, which has the widely touted new optical-scan voting system, and Sacramento, Calif., where voters use a punch card system so disdained that the machines that read them aren't made anymore.
Hawaii's 1998 governor's race featured the new voting machinery, which looks like a fax machine. It reads voters' pen marks on paper (which provides a checkable voting record) and counts them immediately.
Seven of the 361 machines screwed up on that first try. Five of them had lenses too clouded to read ballots, the sixth misread ballots in another way, and the seventh had a defective cable. Vote counting continued into March 1999, requiring two different technologies and several hand counts.
"When you put all your eggs into the technology basket, you find that machines are still run by people, systems are still run by people," said a chastened Dwayne Yoshina, Hawaii's chief elections officer.
Sacramento knows. Election officials there rely on machines older than many of the voters who use them. And they recount 1 percent of the vote by hand just to check the system. The numbers almost always match. Sacramento's secret: a well-trained, thoroughly professional staff.
Stephen Ansolabehere, the MIT political science professor who is heading the MIT-Caltech project, said of voting procedures: "It's a whole process, actually. The machinery is just a piece of this whole process . . . There are about 20 different points at which there could be a failure in this process."
Those include poor ballot design, such as the controversial open-face "butterfly ballots" in Palm Beach County, Fla.; mistaken voter identification numbers; and administrative errors.
"All of this stuff that really doesn't have anything to do with ballot tabulations at all" really does matter, said Gary McIntosh, Washington state's chief election officer and president of the National Association of State Election Directors.
In most of the nation, there are "standards for the equipment, but we don't have standards for the people to operate them," said McIntosh.
The push from people outside the election world is for more high-tech
voting technology, including
use of the Internet. Later this month, however, a special National Science Foundation panel that's looking into the feasibility of Internet voting will warn against moving too fast.
Peter Neumann, a scientist at SRI Computer Systems Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., and a leading expert on computer security, said any such system could be hacked into and corrupted.
"People are looking for the quick answer and they're looking for technology to provide the quick fix," Notable Software's Mercuri said. "What they're going to get is the quick mess."
Why is it harder to make a secure voting machine than a secure automated teller machine?
There are two major distinctions between ATMs and computerized voting, said Bruce Schneier, a top expert in encryption - the science of coding computer transactions to keep them secure.
If an ATM fails, said Schneier, it's usually no big deal because there are other machines to go to. Voting, on the other hand, "happens so rarely you don't have that same kind of experience. So a technological solution is flawed just because it's rarely used. When you do something so rarely, you're better off with a low-tech solution," he said.
Second, if an ATM fails to credit a deposit, there's an audit trail that can help you recover your money. But if something goes wrong on Election Day with a machine or ballot design, "you can't fix it," Schneier said.
That's why experts Neumann and Schneier recommend the same simple solution: paper ballots counted by hand.
For more information, check out the following Web sites:
The Federal Elections Commission site on voting system standards:
The Election Center, a nonpartisan group of elections administrators:
The National Association of State Election Directors:
The National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and
Rebecca Mercuri's Notable Software Web site on electronic voting:
Riverside County, Calif., election home page, which shows how its new
touch-screen voting machines work:
The Internet Voting Technology Alliance:
Writings by Peter Neumann, Rebecca Mercuri and Bruce Schneier on computer
security risks and voting:
National Institute of Standards and Technology's Roy Saltman on voting
Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Office:
Illustration: PHOTO: Associated Press
A woman votes from a car on an electronic machine in Riverside, Calif.,
an option for disabled voters.