Rush to newfangled voting machines abates 

Solution could be far simpler, cheaper 

January 25, 2001


WASHINGTON -- After Florida's election fiasco, politicians, pundits and professors figured better technology was the way to get rid of hanging chads and dangling vote counts.

"A country that has put a man on the moon and an ATM machine on every corner has no excuse" for not devising a flawless voting system, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles Vest said, unveiling a joint California Institute of Technology-MIT project to look into improving how the nation votes.

Earlier this month, computer giants Unisys, Dell and Microsoft said they were working together on a new electronic voting machine. Three panels of experts were calling for more money for voting machinery.

But many experts say machines aren't the solution.

Most of the time when a vote count is wrong, it's not a mechanical failure, say these specialists; usually it's the fault of the user or a lack of clear instructions for them to follow.

"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.

"Technology is part of the answer, but it's not the only answer," said Jim Adler, president of of Bellevue, Wash., which markets an Internet-based voting system.

Tougher than rocket science?

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," Adler said.

Consider Hawaii, which has a widely touted 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 malfunctioned. Five 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 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 Dwayne Yoshina, Hawaii's chief elections officer. "As you use better technology, you have more chances of cables failing."

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 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 open-face so-called butterfly ballots in Palm Beach County, Fla.; wrong voter identification numbers, and all kinds of 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. "If you don't have professional election administrators who have management training, then the vote system is kind of irrelevant."

Opposing viewpoints

The push from people outside the election world is for more high-tech voting technology, including use of the Internet.

Voting on machines at precincts that are connected to a central counting system via the Internet could work but would be expensive, said Richard Schum, director of a National Science Foundation panel that's looking into Internet voting. Voting from home via the Internet is not secure enough with current technology, he said.

Peter Neumann, a scientist at SRI Computer Systems Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., and an 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."

But why is it harder to make a secure voting machine than, say, a secure automated teller machine?

There are two major distinctions, said Bruce Schneier, an 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.

Some say the perfect voting system would combine high-tech touch-screen computers with old-fashioned paper ballots and TV monitors to teach waiting voters how to cast their ballots. That system doesn't exist.

There is consensus that new touch-screen machines that record votes electronically are good but lack an important feature: an independent paper audit trail for recounts and to show that the machines are working properly. Election administrators who know that close races are a fact of life say they need those paper trails to assure accurate results.

"I think a lot of voters want to see advanced technology used in elections, but they want to see a paper trail, too," said Kim Alexander, founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advances technologies to promote easier voting.

At a December seminar on voting-system problems sponsored by Harvard University, election administrators said the solution could be as simple as buying a $40 printer for each electronic voting machine.

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