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MIT-Caltech team offers ideas for improving voting

Four to six million votes were lost in the 2000 presidential election due to problems with ballots, equipment and registration or at the polling place, according to an unprecedented joint analysis by the a team of engineers, computer scientists and political scientists from MIT and the California Institute of Technology.

The 100-page report, "Voting: What Is, What Could Be," was released on July 16 at a press teleconference held at MIT with Caltech President David Baltimore and faculty members participating from Pasadena, Calif.

Caltech President David Baltimore noted that the events of late 2000 were the inspiration for the two universities' joint report.

"Our democracy was being tested by the voting procedures in Florida, but we learned this is a national problem that festered for years and had not been addressed. This problem was in part technology. We sought to create a benchmark for effective voting technology so we could be comfortable that all votes were being counted in each election," he said.

"Voting: What Is, What Could Be" completes the first phase of the Voting Technology Project. Sponsored by the Carnegie Corp., it is the first nonpartisan assessment of the problems with voting technology and systems throughout the nation.

Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corp., commented at the MIT conference, "Voting is the DNA of democracy. We are grateful to these two leaders--university presidents available to be involved with the civic life of the U.S."

The Caltech-MIT team offered short-term and longer-term recommendations in their report. They focused primarily on immediate reforms at last week's press conference.

As things now stand, "we risk another controversial and contested election like the one in Florida in 2000. We risk lowered voter confidence in the voting process," said Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of political science at MIT and co-director of the project.

Optical scanning machines in each precinct is the currently available technology for counting votes, said Professor Ansolabehere. Installing these machines, including reliable backup methods, and providing each polling place with a list of all registered voters across the county "could cut lost votes in half by the 2004 election," he said.

Thomas Palfrey, professor of economics and political science at Caltech and a co-director of the Voting Technology Project, said immediate reforms should include "phasing out punch cards, upgrading equipment, establishing federal matching funds for equipment upgrades, early on-site voting, and field-testing new equipment using human subjects."


The Voting Technology Project based its longer-range recommendations on resolving security issues for Internet voting.

"Internet voting is different from e-commerce. We need to take great care with a high-tech voting system," said Ronald Rivest, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. "It may be the long-range solution but all the details must be right&emdash;including principles of cryptography, standards and separation of privileges."

Professor Rivest's security-related recommendations included moving away from monolithic voting machines to a multicomponent system; maintaining a physical audit trail, one that is "immutable, archivable and cast by the voter"; using open source code to bolster voter confidence in the system; and delaying Internet voting for at least a decade.

"Voting from home via the internet has all the inherent problems of absentee voting and adds the possibility of coercion," he said.

Throughout their report, the Caltech-MIT team emphasized the need for strictest security in vote-casting and vote-counting (or recounting) equipment. Their study refers to voting frauds perpetrated by 19th-century politics and to the incalculable potential for such fraud by Internet hackers.


The Caltech-MIT team offered an innovative way to think about voting by ballot, introduced by Jehoshua Bruck, the Gordon and BettyMoore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems in Electrical Engineering at Caltech.

"There is no perfect voting machine. Instead, we offer the 'frog,' a new voting architecture. It is a paradigm shift in thinking about ballots and voting that will prepare us for the Internet," said Professor Bruck.

In this system, votes are recorded on physical items randomly called "frogs." The frog could be a piece of paper or an electronic memory card or some other object.

Voting itself is divided into two steps. In the frog system, the "vote-generation" step, in which the ballot appears and election choices are made, is done on one machine. It is separate from the "vote-casting" step, in which the voter's choice is actually recorded by inserting the frog into another machine. The voter literally carries his or her frog from the ballot machine to the vote-casting device. Professor Bruck brought along a small green plastic frog to humorously demonstrate the charm of this plan.


By canvassing county and state governments, the team estimated that the counties spent "approximately $1 billion" on election administration in the 2000 election. With slightly more than 100 million voters, this comes to about $10 per voter.

The team called for a significant investment in improved voting technology by the U.S. government and for establishing a National Elections Research Lab or program to "foster the development of better voting equipment and voting systems."

"As the work of the team continues to the next phase, its focus will be increasingly on the design of new equipment and processes," President Charles M. Vest said. "The team will be assessing new practices in voter registration and polling place administration. Computer technology, appropriately applied, offers significant opportunity for cost effective advances in these dimensions.

"Even with these new designs in equipment and processes, the team recognizes the importance of a commitment to continual innovation. As such, it will consider a mechanism to involve industry, government and universities in the sustained improvement in voting equipment and processes.

"The work of this team carries on one of the most important missions of the university: to serve the society. And what service could be more important than improving our democracy, helping to ensure that each person's vote counts?" President Vest concluded.

Other Caltech members of the Voting Technology Project are Associate Professor of Political Science R. Michael Alvarez and Professor of Mechanical Engineering Erik Antonsson.

MIT's other team members are Stephen Graves, the Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management; Ted Selker, associate professor of media arts and sciences; Alexander Slocum, professor of mechanical engineering; and Charles Stewart, professor of political science.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 18, 2001.

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