Researchers Use Technology to Improve Voting

A group of researchers from MIT and CalTech are working to use technology to make voting better.

Reuters
An electronic voting booth in Alexandria, Virginia, November 2, 2010.

The Voting Technology Project was founded ten years ago as a response to the problems that occurred in the 2000 presidential election. Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at MIT who works with the project, says it is largely supported by non-profits such as the Carnegie and Ford Foundations.

During this election, Prof. Stewart says the team is paying attention to reports from states like Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado, where the races are close and many people vote on electronic machines.

Some issues have already come up from the touchscreen technology used by the electronic voting machines. Prof. Stewart says he has heard of complaints today from voters in North Carolina who say that the touchscreens were registering the wrong selections. This could be caused by voters leaning on the machines or running their fingers over multiple selections, or by improperly calibrated machines.

The latter issue, says Prof. Stewart, highlights a problem with electronic voting machines that people may not realize: though many of the machines were purchased between 2004 and 2006, they are already becoming obsolete. “The industry is very capital poor, and there’s not a lot of money going into research to develop better equipment. The new stuff is getting old really fast.”

Researchers from the project will also closely monitor the elections in New York, after widespread issues cropped up with new machines used to tally votes during the September primary.

Rather than pulling a lever in a mechanical voting booth, New York voters now mark their selections in pencil on a paper ballot, which is then scanned by a machine—similar to Scantron-scored standarized tests. Optical scanning machines have been used in elections in the U.S. for the past 30 years but were only adopted in New York state beginning in 2009.

Prof. Stewart says many voters are anxious about whether their ballots will be counted, particularly after the 2000 presidential election. “We get lots of calls from people who just don’t trust that their ballots have been counted.”

Ronald Rivest, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT who is involved with the Voting Technology Project, has been working with a team of researchers to develop a system that would allow voters to confirm that their ballots have been counted and that their votes have been recorded correctly.

The system, called the Scantegrity II, has voters mark their ballots with special pens that expose codes next to the names of the candidates they select. The voter records those codes along with their ballot’s serial number. The voter can then look up the serial number on the election website to verify that the codes they marked were registered on that ballot. The codes are randomly generated and can’t reveal what candidate a voter chose. The Scantegrity machine was used by the city of Takoma Park, Md., for its municipal elections last November.

Other developments that researchers involved with the project are studying include the potential for Internet-based voting systems.

Prof. Stewart says a challenge to developing more reliable voting technologies is a central aspect of voting itself—the secret ballot. “At some point, you lose the chain of custody and the chain of proof. But there might be ways of auditing all the steps along the way.”

Despite issues that have arisen in recent elections, Prof. Stewart says the technology is moving in the right direction. “We vote better now than we did in 2000 ,” he says.”The machines are better and the procedures are better. The people who run elections are more aware of the problems, and they’re aware that the public is watching how they resolve them.”