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Voting project ideas seen in '01 election and '02 plans

For researchers on the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, the Nov. 6 elections provided the first opportunity to assess the efficacy of their proposals.

The good news was that even the close elections were relatively peaceful. The bad news was that it happened under essentially the same flawed systems of the 2000 presidential election.

"This being an odd-numbered year, it's really too early to expect many changes," said Professor Charles Stewart of political science, one of five MIT faculty involved in the project. "There are rumblings that some of the changes will be in place for 2002, but I wouldn't hold my breath for widespread changes by then."

He noted that major problems were reported in San Bernardino County in California, which uses the infamous punch card system. According to reports, a county staff member failed to program the counting devices properly and check them before the election, resulting in some votes not being counted and others being attributed to the wrong candidate. "These sort of horror stories come out slowly," Stewart said.

The team was formed in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, which was finally decided by the US Supreme Court after weeks of wrangling over recounts, spoiled ballots and other problems in Florida.

"Florida is pretty much our success story," said Stewart, noting that the state would replace the controversial punchcard ballots next year with touch screen systems.

Stewart said the percentage of spoiled ballots in Miami's mayoral election was lower than in the 2000 presidential election. Since no candidate received a majority of the votes on Nov. 6, the mayor's race was decided in a runoff between the two top vote-getters last Tuesday, won by attorney Manny Diaz over former Mayor Maurice Ferre.

According to the Miami Herald, Stewart said, most of the problems on Nov. 6 occurred in neighborhoods with large minority populations. Stewart added that the newspaper also paid "significant attention to problems" with poll workers.

"Interviews with election officials in Miami suggested that they weren't paying much attention to the performance of the equipment because they are planning to buy new equipment anyway next year," he said.

Georgia, where Atlanta's mayoral election was decided by 191 votes, also is shopping for new technology. Californians will vote next year on a bond referendum to buy new equipment. "I'd like to think that some provisions of the referendum were due to our work," Stewart said.

Stewart is concerned that election officials across the country are concentrating on technology at the expense of other Voting Technology Project recommendations, including placing laptop computers at polling places to moderate Election Day disputes, using provisional ballots when registration questions arise, and replacing absentee ballots with early voting. He fears the concentration on technology may be misplaced.

"I'm afraid too many people -- public officials and the public -- have concluded that since the 'old stuff' broke, they must need to get the 'new stuff,' meaning the newest electronic equipment," he said. "Our own study has called into question the efficacy of the newest equipment. Some of the new equipment is very good, but all of it isn't, and this needs to be approached cautiously."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 14, 2001.

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