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Caltech-MIT team: Push for new voting technology paid off in Florida primaries

Next step is recruitment, training for poll workers
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - If one measures election success by equipment performance alone, then Florida's push to get new voting equipment on-line for the 2002 election appears to have paid off. Compared with the performance of equipment in past Florida state primary elections, the new technologies for casting and counting ballots look like clear improvements according to experts at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Researchers from the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project calculated the rate of residual votes (ballots on which no votes or too many votes were recorded) for the largest counties in Florida for the 2002 Democratic Gubernatorial Primary and for the last three Gubernatorial General Elections in Florida (1998, 1994 and 1990). These counties are Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Pinellas.

The residual vote rate, it appears, has been substantially reduced as a result of the election reform efforts of the past year. On average, 2.0 percent of Democratic voters recorded no vote for governor in these seven counties. In past elections, the average has been 3.1 percent. This is a 35 percent improvement in performance.

The largest apparent improvements came in Brevard and Duval counties, which switched from punch cards to optically scanned paper ballots. The remaining counties purchased new touch screen or Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines. All of the counties show some improvement in their capacity to record and count votes.

"These results are very encouraging," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor at MIT and co-director of the project. "Florida made a major effort to upgrade its technology and, in the primary the machines used showed clear gains over the technologies in past elections."

Professor Charles Stewart, another MIT professor working on the Voting Technology Project cautions, however, that "the success of an election cannot be measured solely in terms of equipment performance. Current events in Florida also illustrate how better technology is just a first step in improving the functioning of democracy." Stewart said, "Most of the problems reported by journalists covering the 2002 Primary Elections in Florida did not concern equipment malfunctions, but problems encountered preparing for Election Day, such as training poll workers."

R. Michael Alvarez, another member of the Voting Technology Project and a professor at Caltech said, "As counties and states across the country, especially here in California, plan out similar changes, we are learning important lessons about how to make such important changes in voting technologies. The one distressing thing, though, are the reports from Florida that polling place workers had difficulties getting some of the new voting machines up and running on election day in Florida, and that as a result, some voters might have been turned away from the polling places.

These reports reinforce our calls for more polling place workers and better training of polling place workers, as they provide a critical role in making sure that all votes are counted."

MIT's Stewart adds, "The fact that the congressional election reform bill is currently stalled in a House-Senate conference committee hasn't helped matters any."

The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project is a non-partisan research project, formed to study election systems following the 2000 presidential election and sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation.

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