Archive 9.04 - Apr 2001 Feature
Debugging Democracy

THE GIST: Antique voting gear disappears from polls by the 2008 election. The workhorse voter system of tomorrow is part high tech, part low: It looks like an ATM that spits out a correctly marked, machine-readable piece of paper that can also be counted and definitively checked by human eyes. 

FALSE ALARM: Political machines can't be trusted: All-electronic systems and Internet crypto fall far short of ensuring "one person, one vote." Good point, and that's why total automation isn't the goal - experts warn that error and fraud are best minimized by human oversight at each step of the process. 

EXHIBIT A: The Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, an interdisciplinary campaign launched early this year, seeks to identify the pitfalls in current polling procedures and outline ways to make voting machines foolproof. The project's February report warned that all forms of poll automation used in the November election were, on average, less reliable than the old manually marked paper forms, hence the desire for a hybrid solution. 

WORDS TO LIVE BY: "All current and recently proposed systems are inadequate." - Rebecca Mercuri, a Bryn Mawr College computer science professor whose court affidavit advocated hand recounts in Florida

ON THE RISE: Senators Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) want $2.5 billion in federal matching funds to assist states in upgrading voting systems, while California legislators are pushing for $300 million of state money. With that kind of cash on the table, companies like Sequoia Voting Systems will face healthy competition: Unisys, Dell, and Microsoft are already working jointly on an electronic system. 

FUTURE REFERENCE: Election Center (; Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project (; Federal Election Commission (; Mercuri's site (

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