VTP News

The state of the U.S. election system

When it comes to the integrity and accuracy of voting systems in the United States, the good news is that widespread technological upgrades have largely eliminated the voting-machine problems that were so evident when Florida’s disputed recount determined the 2000 presidential election.The bad news is that some of those improvements in accuracy could be undermined by increases in early voting through the mail, which is turning out to be a relatively low-accuracy method of voting, according to a new research report released by MIT and the California Institute of Technology.“A lot of changes over the last decade have made voting in America better,” says Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, who co-authored the new report with five colleagues at four universities. “The possibility of a [situation like Florida’s 2000 election] is much lower now than it was 12 years ago.”However, Stewart adds, “We have possibly gotten way ahead of ourselves in encouraging people to vote by mail. It’s pretty clear that the improvement we’ve gotten by having better voting machines in the precincts may be given back by having more and more people voting at home.”

Virtual Issue of Political Analysis on Election Fraud and Integrity

The new vitural issue of Political Analysis is currently online.  R. Michael Alvarez, and Ines Levin have put together this issue on election fraud and electoral integrity.  Here is the link:http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/polana/virtualissue3.html 

Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count

Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count - at MIT - Monday, 5/7 at 5 p.m. in 32-141

Extra information: the location is 32 Vassar Street, room 32-141, 1st floor of
the strange looking Frank Gehry Stata Building which will be unlocked.

Parking on the nearby streets is metered until 6 p.m. (25 cents per 15 minutes).
There are a number of local parking garages. Any MIT ungated lot is available
for free parking after 5 p.m. (technically).

RSVP-ing is appreciated but not required.

Be 32-G675 in Stata
phone: 617 253-6098

Broken Ballots -- Will Your Vote Count?
by Douglas W. Jones and Barbara Simons
published by the Center for the Study of Language and Information
distributed by University of Chicago Press Books

A talk by Douglas Jones
Monday, May 7, 2012 from 5:00 - 5:40 p.m.
32-141, Stata Center, MIT, 32 Vassar St, Cambridge, MA

For many of us, the presidential election of 2000 was a wake-up call. The controversy
following the vote count led to demands for election reform. But the new voting systems
that were subsequently introduced to the market have serious security flaws, and many
are confusing and difficult to use. Moreover, legislation has not kept up with the constantly
evolving voting technology, leaving little to no legal recourse when votes are improperly
counted. How did we come to acquire the complex technology we now depend on to count
votes? We probe how this came to be, along with public policy and regulatory issues raised
by modern voting technologies.

What others are saying about the book:
The cornerstone of our democracy is the right to vote and the right to have that vote counted
as it was intended. Broken Ballots first demonstrates clearly and compellingly the extent to
which that right is in jeopardy. Then it lays out a plan to preserve and protect that right. Kudos
to the authors and to all those fighting to safeguard our democracy. -- Kevin Shelley, Former
California Secretary of State.

This book is a must read, not only for election officials and other policy makers, but also for
public interest groups who seek to protect the vote and, indeed, for every citizen who wants his
or her vote to be counted. -- Fritz Schwarz, Chief Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice at the
New York University School of Law.

This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about elections. -- David Dill, Professor
of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Protecting Your Vote

Just ask Rick Santorum. In January, Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucuses, but, because of vote counting and tabulation errors, Mitt Romney was declared the winner. In the two weeks before the error became clear, Romney’s campaign gained momentum, while Santorum’s withered.

Unfortunately, the same problem – or worse – could easily occur in Massachusetts. This year, voters will choose the president, and control of the US Senate may come down to the race shaping up between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren.

How will voters know their votes will be counted accurately? Massachusetts voters cast paper ballots. This is a good foundation for an election system, since the paper ballots form an “audit trail” that can be examined (and if necessary, recounted). In almost all cities and towns in the state, those ballots are slid into machines that read the ballots and total up all the votes at each polling place. The machines are reprogrammed for every election, but only 50 to 75 ballots are used to check the new programming, even though 1,000 ballots or more are likely to be put into each voting machine on Election Day. Votes from each location are then brought together and tabulated. In both steps of the process, there is the possibility of significant error.

As a technologist, I have spent decades working with information systems and computer programs, and can say one thing with certainty: mistakes can happen. In banking, business, and engineering, similar problems often arise, and they are solved elegantly: with random testing. The IRS does not take every tax return on faith – it audits a small number of them. These audits uncover errors and fraud, and serve as deterrent. Athletes are randomly tested for performance-enhancing drugs. Factories pull random samples of their products off the production line and conduct quality control checks. Municipalities send inspectors to gas stations to make sure that when the meter says you have pumped a gallon, there actually is a gallon of gas in your tank.

Audits and random tests are used anytime there are numbers involved and a lot at stake. And what could be more important than the elections we use to choose our government’s leaders?

Twenty-six states have election audits and that number is growing. After an election, the state selects a few random polling places to count the ballots by hand. The hand-counted totals are compared to machine results. If the numbers are close enough, there is confidence that any errors or mis-programming sufficient to have affected the election outcome will be discovered. Because only a few random polling locations are audited, costs are kept low. Many people are surprised to learn that we don’t audit election results here in Massachusetts.

There need not be any big conspiracies or widespread failures to make audits worthwhile. Voting machines are just like any other machine. Sometimes they break. In Waterville, Maine, voting machine malfunctions caused a Senate candidate to receive 27,000 votes – about 16,000 more than the number of registered voters in the entire district. In Barry County, Michigan, flawed programming caused incorrect results. The problem was discovered only when a county clerk received the results from the precinct where he voted and noticed that the candidate for whom he voted for had received no votes.

In addition to providing security and confidence, audits provide information. Information that election officials can use to make sure every person’s vote is counted. Audits can uncover common voter mistakes that could be fixed with, for example, better instructions. Audits can tell election officials if a ballot has been poorly designed in a way many voters cannot understand, so that future ballots can be designed better.

Let’s make 2012 the year where all Massachusetts voters have confidence that their vote will be counted. There is audit legislation pending in the Legislature. Lawmakers should pass it in time for the November election. Elections matter. And every vote counts.

Ronald L. Rivest is a professor of computer science at MIT. He is a founder of RSA Data Security.

Charles Stewart III and Jonathan Katz elected fellows of the American Association of Arts and Sciences

Congratulations to Charles Stewart III and Jonathan Katz who were elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Charles and Jonathan join one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies and a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to Academy studies of science and technology policy, global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities, and education.

Following are links to both press releases from MIT and Caltech:


The other people who have been part of the project who are already fellows are Ansolabehere, Palfrey, and Rivest.

MPSA 2011 Conference - Presentations by VTP Faculty, Affiliates and Students

Our Voting Technology faculty, affiliates and students will be presenting papers/posters, and several of our faculty will be sitting on panels at this year's Midwest Political Science Association Conference. Please visit the website for specific locations. Following are dates and times of the sessions for each VTP team member:

> Paper: The 17th Amendment and the Partisan Composition of the U.S. Senate, by Charles H. Stewart III, MIT and Wendy J. Schiller, Brown University. March 31, 2011/4:35pm

> Roundtable: Using Political Science to Understand the Democrats Surge and Decline: Charles Stewart will be a panelist. April 2, 2011/10:25am

> Charles Stewart will be Chairing the following session: Proximity Models: Moving beyond One Dimension on April 2, 2011/12:45pm

> Paper: Deciphering Declining: California's Decline to State Voters, by John Andrew Sinclair and Michael Alvarez, Caltech. March 31, 2011/2:40pm

> Roundtable: Graduate Methods Training in the Potential Outcomes Era: Moving Beyond Regression?. Michael Alvarez will be one of the Chairs on April 1, 2011/12:45pm

> Paper: Voter Choice under Instant Runoff Voting: An Empirical Analysis of the Rationality and Dimensionality of Candidate Rankings, by Ines Levin, Michael Alvarez, Caltech and Thad Hall, University of Utah. April 1, 2011/4:35pm

> Paper: How Emotional Reactions Alter Survey Responses, presented by Peter Foley, Ralph Adolphs and Michael Alvarez, Caltech. April 2, 2011/10:25am

> Paper: Uncertainty and Importance in Vote Choice, presented by David Peterson, Iowa State University and Michael Alvarez, Caltech. April 2, 2011/12:45pm

> Paper: Overseas Voter Satisfaction in 2010, presented by Clair M. Smith, Overseas Vote Foundation and Thad Hall, University of Utah. March 31, 2011/10:25am

> Paper: Voter Choice under Instant Runoff Voting... presented by Ines Levin, Michael Alvarez, Caltech and Thad Hall, University of Utah. April 1, 2011/4:35pm

> Paper: Measuring Changes in Voter Turnout and mobilization Patterns: The 2004 and 2008 U.S. Presidential Elections, presented by Morgan Llewellyn, IMT, Lucca. April 2, 2011/10:25am

> Paper: Uninformed but Opinionated Voters, presented by Peter Foley, Caltech. March 31, 2011/8:30am

> Paper: Optimal Defense Policy Under Domestic Constraints, 1815-1914, presented by John Andrew Sinclair, Caltech. March 31, 2011/10:25am


39th Annual James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award Lecture

Tuesday, February 08, 2011
39th Annual James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award Lecture

Speaker: Professor Ronald L. Rivest, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Time: 4:00p–5:30p

Location: 10-250, Huntington Hall

Ronald L. Rivest, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science who helped develop one of the world's most widely used Internet security systems, is MIT's James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award winner for 2010-2011.

The award was announced at the faculty meeting on Wednesday, May 19. Established in 1971 as a tribute to MIT's 10th president, the Killian Award recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishment by an MIT faculty member.
Rivest, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), is known for his pioneering work in the field of cryptography, computer and network security.

Web site: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/rivest-wins-facultys-killian-award

Open to: the general public

Cost: Free

Sponsor(s): Information Center, Provost's Office, Killian Award Committee

For more information, contact:
Joe Coen

This event is categorized as: lectures/conferences, science/engineering, institute events

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Researchers Use Technology to Improve Voting

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

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.”

Perspectives: GOP tidal wave stopped at state line

By R. Michael Alvarez
Posted: 11/06/2010 07:12:23 AM PDT

Tuesday's elections were historic. We will look back on 2010 as one of the most important midterm elections in recent memory.

First, Washington politics is about to change, big time. With Republicans picking up a majority of House seats, there will be new political leadership and a change of focus in one branch of our government. No doubt, the new Republican House leaders will look at their sweeping victory as a mandate for change.

These elections will also undoubtedly usher in a new era of partisan wrangling, and most likely gridlock. With Republicans holding a solid majority in the House, they will be able to stymie Democratic initiatives coming either from the Senate or the White House.

Republicans can also use their new power to launch investigations and to attack the Obama administration. While this will satisfy some conservatives throughout the nation, it will likely alienate other voters who are looking for real solutions to pressing problems.

While it is early to say exactly what drove voting decisions across the nation, in the first national exit poll reported by CNN, most voters said that the economy was the most important issue facing the country today. It was important to note that few named health care, illegal immigration or the war in Afghanistan.

But I doubt that many of those voting Tuesday for change believe that partisan gridlock and politically motivated investigations will produce new jobs, restore value to their homes or lead to a better standard of living for their families.

So unless the politicians in Washington are solution-driven, we might see an even angrier electorate in 2012.

Second, while this tidal wave of change swept the nation, it seems to have stopped at the California border. Democratic candidates like Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer successfully fought back the Republican tide, as did many legislative candidates across the state. A good example of the latter is incumbent Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who easily and overwhelmingly brushed off what some thought could be a strong challenge from tea party-aligned Republican John Colbert.

Why didn't the Republican tidal wave sweep over California? This will be something that pundits and researchers look at in the future, but at this point there seems to be a couple of possible explanations. At the state level, Republican candidates were inexperienced and lacked a message that resonated throughout the state.

Neither Fiorina nor Whitman seemed sure of themselves as politicians, and they never got traction with their messages. At the congressional level, California is so heavily gerrymandered that national tides did not do much damage to incumbents.

Additionally, it is likely that California's electorate on Tuesday was distinct from the rest of the nation. As I visited polling places on Tuesday, in many parts of Los Angeles County there were energized voters, and visible voter-mobilization efforts. Early analysis of exit poll data indicates that those efforts might have led to a significant increase in Latino participation, another possible reason Republicans failed throughout the state.

Third, after Tuesday's races, the future of the Republican Party in California at the state level is unclear. At this point, Democratic candidates have swept all of the statewide offices except for the attorney general's seat; that race may not be decided for weeks, with Kamala Harris of San Francisco currently in a slim lead. Given the virtual Democratic sweep at the state level in a Republican year nationally, it surely looks as if California Republicans are out of sync with California voters.

Fourth, the two top-of-the ticket races provide strong evidence that well-heeled candidates do not always win elections. Whitman spent at least $142 million of her own money on her failed bid. Fiorina spent more than $5 million from her pocketbook in another failed effort.

Rich, free-spending candidates strike fear into the hearts of their potential opponents, but winning an election in California requires more than a large bank balance. While there is no guarantee that well-heeled individuals won't blow their fortunes in future elections, my guess is that Whitman and Fiorina's losses on Tuesday may force other rick potential candidates to rethink their political plans.

Finally, there was a trio of ballot measures in California of future importance: propositions 19, 20 and 25. Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana in California, lost badly. It never raised a lot of money, at least until billionaire George Soros weighed in at the last minute. But the measure attracted a lot of attention across the nation. Despite failing at the polls, we might see another similar ballot measure in the near future - 45 percent of California voters said "yes" to legal pot.

But both propositions 20 and 25 did pass, and they will have long-lasting effects on politics and governance in California.

Proposition 20 added the responsibility of drawing congressional district boundaries to the new Citizens Redistricting Commission, which was put into place after Proposition 11 passed in 2008.

The work of this new commission will begin shortly, and because it will take the power to draw legislative districts away from politicians, we could see more competitive state legislative and congressional elections soon.

If Proposition 20 will change who gets elected in California, Proposition 25 is likely to change one of the most important things state legislators do in office - produce a state budget. Proposition 25, which was strongly supported at the polls on Tuesday, will lower the vote requirement to pass a budget from a two-thirds to a simple majority. This could reduce the budgetary gridlock we have seen in recent years in Sacramento, and eliminate one of the primary sources of partisan friction in our state's politics.

R. Michael Alvarez is a professor of political science at Caltech whose research focuses on voting behavior and election technologies.

Read more: http://www.sgvtribune.com/opinions/ci_16542589#ixzz14oFTJoLP

Use of "NegExp" auditing method in Boulder, Colorado

The ``NegExp'' auditing method developed by Jay Aslam, Raluca Ada
Popa, and myself as part of the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project
research is currently being used to audit election results in
some jurisdictions in Boulder, Colorado.

Here is a pointer to the web site regarding the audit:

The person to contact about this, if you are interested in
contacting someone about this, is
Neal McBurnett

Attached is an information sheet about their audit procedures,
which references our paper. You can download more information
from the web site.