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Voting project team takes its findings to Washington

The Caltech-MIT voting team took their research on the road July 11-12, providing congressional staff members in Washington with a preview of their report on improving voting technology in the United States.

At a lunchtime briefing, the team also heard one congressman's response to its recommendations, particularly on using early voting to ease problems with absentee ballots.

"Campaigns are very carefully designed to peak at election day," said U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich. "With early voting, we can expect candidates will have to campaign more intensively over a longer period of time, resulting in more commercials and more costly campaigns."

Ehlers, a physicist, shared the Voting Technology Project team's sense of urgency to establish "absolute standards" to prevent voting fraud, as well as wariness about new electonic voting equipment.

"I have the greatest respect for local election officials. Poll workers, volunteers, are the salt of the earth. But if you do something only four times a year, it's easy to forget. Let's work on those human factors, making machines so easy to use that no one can forget," he said.

Ehlers urged support for the Voting Technology Standards Act of 2001, a "bipartisan bill to establish voluntary standards to ensure the accuracy, integrity, security and usability of voting systems."

Albert H. Teich (S.B. 1964 in physics, Ph.D. 1969 in political science), director of science policy for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, introduced MIT Professor of Political Science Stephen Ansolabehere and his colleagues at the luncheon.

"We hope our work will help members of Congress face decisions in the wake of the 2000 election," Professor Ansolabehere said to the attentive group of 50. "As the system stands now, voting is done in five or six steps, including registration and final counting. A failure at any step now means a vote is lost."

Thomas Palfrey, professor of economics and political science at Caltech, studies the voting industry and public finance. He compared the current relationship between the voting machine industry and voters to "the situation like the old one we had with cable TV. We had no choice -- it was a monopoly -- and no information on the quality of the product," he said.

The voting technology team recommended new standards for field pre-testing of equipment and expects competitiveness among voting machine manufacturers to rise.

Ted Selker, associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, discussed the "perception and motor problems" in the 2000 election, noting especially that people "get lost" in ballots as currently designed and that there are chronic problems with machines that require "pushing, pulling, turning, rapping or pressing a button."

Selker encouraged his listeners to approach ballot design from their own perspectives. "What are the ideal processes for you? How do you learn best? How do you communicate?" he asked them. "Consider voting that way. We make mistakes with unfamiliar things."

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

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