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.”
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.
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
Attached is an information sheet about their audit procedures,
which references our paper. You can download more information
from the web site.
A nation that can send a man to the moon and that can put a reliable ATM
machine on every corner has no excuse not to deploy a reliable, affordable,
easy-to-use voting system!
Attached is a PDF of the Carnegie Review, which features an article where Mike Alvarez was interviewed on Electoral Reform.
Former Soviet Republic Estonia is the first country in the world to allow citizens to vote over the internet. Thad Hall, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah, recently observed the municipal elections in that country, which saw 20% of the vote conducted online. He tells Utah Policy how the country conducts the online vote and ensures the integrity of the election process on the internet.
See attached interview.
Professor Charles Stewart is this year's recipient of the Institute's Arthur C. Smith Award. The Arthur C. Smith Award was established in 1996 on the occasion of Dean Smith's retirement from the position of Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs. The award honors the service of Dean Smith and is presented to a member of the MIT faculty for meaningful contributions and devotion to undergraduate student life at MIT.
Charles Stewart is giving a presentation at the IACREOT 38th Annual Summer Conference & Trade Show in Spokane, Washington this week (July 7-11, 2009).
Attached is his presentation on the 2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections.
News from Chairman Schumer
Schumer Reveals Groundbreaking New Study from Voting Experts: Up to 7 Million Registered Voters were Prevented or Discouraged from Casting Ballots in '08 Election
WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, announced Wednesday that, according to a groundbreaking new study conducted by leading election experts, as many as seven million registered voters were prevented or discouraged from casting their ballots in the 2008 election, demonstrating major malfunctions in the country’s election process.
Testimony of Mr. Stephen Ansolabehere
Professor, Department of Government
Hearing: Voter Registration: Assessing Current Problems
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Testimony of Mr. Stephen Ansolabehere
Professor, Department of Government
WASHINGTON, Dec 09, 2008 /PRNewswire-USNewswire via COMTEX/ -- Pew Center on the States and the JEHT Foundation Commit $8 Million in 2009 to Modernize Election System
Despite widespread predictions of Election Day meltdowns, the election ran relatively smoothly, according to a new national survey. An overwhelming number of voters on November 4 -- more than nine in ten (91 percent) -- said it was very easy to find their polling place; more than eight in ten (83 percent) said their polling place was very well run; and 75 percent said they were "very confident" their vote was counted as cast. The survey of 10,000 Americans, conducted November 5-12, confirms anecdotal reports of voter satisfaction. Pew Center on the States' Make Voting Work ( www.pewcenteronthestates.org) and AARP sponsored the survey, which was conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The first of its kind since the election, the research poll was released at Make Voting Work's (MVW) "Voting in America -- The Road Ahead" conference today, where Secretaries of State, election officials and experts gathered to discuss and drive election reform.
"Overall, voters give the election system very good grades," said Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Pew Center on the States' Make Voting Work. "But the data does point to issues with voter wait times, absentee voting and inconsistent application of election laws. With momentum building for reform, now is the time to wrestle with where and how to improve our system based on the insights from voters' direct experience in navigating it. We are confident election officials are committed to identifying and testing innovative solutions."
Among the survey's findings:
-- On Election Day, African American voters waited more than twice as long
to vote (29 minutes) than all other voters, who reported an average wait
time of 13 minutes to vote. Early voters said they had to wait an
average of 20 minutes to vote, but African Americans again reported an
average wait time more than twice as long -- 43 minutes;
-- Only 61 percent of absentee voters said they were very confident their
vote was counted as cast, compared to 75 percent of Election Day voters;
-- Among those who did not vote, eight percent said they had requested an
absentee ballot but it never arrived, 16 percent had registration
problems and 10 percent could not find their polling place;
-- Almost everyone surveyed said they had at least one form of government
ID. Hispanics said they were asked to show ID more often than whites or
African Americans in states that require ID;
-- More than half of the states require no ID to vote, yet 12 percent of
voters in these states not requiring ID said they were asked to present
an ID. Meanwhile, in states that require a photo ID, 20 percent of
voters said they were never asked for one.
"Over the coming weeks, we will continue to look at the data to learn more about why people had different experiences when they voted," said pollster Charles Stewart III, professor of political science at MIT. "In February, we plan to release an extended analysis providing breakdowns by state and by segments of the electorate."
New Funding to Study Alternatives to Voting by Precinct and Other Innovations
Make Voting Work (MVW) will invest more than $8 million in 2009 to drive advances in the field - continuing its focus on voter information, voter registration, audits, polling place management, and military and overseas voting. Launched in 2007, MVW is a unique partnership of the Pew Center on the States with the JEHT Foundation.
"With Make Voting Work, the Pew Center on the States is documenting problems in our election system and identifying opportunities for improvement," said Susan K. Urahn, managing director, Pew Center on the States. "Our research on the 2008 elections shows that state and local election officials adopted a variety of innovations designed to improve how elections are run. By field-testing these new approaches, Make Voting Work will build the evidence base needed for sound policymaking. And when we know what works, we will explore how to advance policies that lead to significant improvements across the country."
Initially, the new funding will be applied to six projects that will evaluate the impact of early voting and other alternatives to traditional precinct place voting on turnout, voter convenience and satisfaction, integrity and security of the system, and administrative efficiency and cost. Working with leading election officials around the country, MVW will commission a number of additional pilot projects, case studies and experiments in 2009 to deepen the evidence base available to policymakers, those administering our elections, and the American electorate.
Make Voting Work, a project of the Pew Center on the States, seeks to foster an election system that achieves the highest standards of accuracy, accessibility, efficiency and security. The initiative examines the most pressing election problems, and undertakes and evaluates pilot projects and experiments designed to address them. This research will inform our efforts to identify effective solutions through changes in policies, practices and technology. Further information is available at www.pewcenteronthestates.org.
The JEHT Foundation was established in April 2000. Its name stands for the core values that underlie the Foundation's mission: Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance. The Foundation focuses on criminal and juvenile justice, international justice, and fair and participatory elections. Working directly with states, in some cases in-depth, is a key part of the Foundation strategy to implement practical change related to its mission.
SOURCE Pew Center on the States
The real action in the Minnesota recount will be the ballots challenged by the two campaigns on the grounds that the voter intent was not properly ascertained. These challenged ballots are emerging even when the county recounts show no discrepancy with the count of the ballots successfully scanned by the machines. As I suggested in an earlier posting, this is an illustration of why the post-election audit is not an especially good predictor of what will happen in the recount. The result will be determined by looking at the ballots that the machines fail to count if they are functioning properly. (Why some of these ballots weren’t kicked back to the voters because they were overvotes is another issue to be pondered.)
If the best hunting for new votes is among the “residual votes,” then it is natural to ask whether the different parts of the state seem to be setting aside the same proportion of ballots for further scrutiny. The answer here is “no.”
Statewide, about 5% of the residual vote has ended up as a challenged ballot. Two counties that have completed their recounts have seen challenges lodged against over 20% of their residual votes: Cook (25%) and Fillmore (25%). St. Louis (21%), and Wabasha (32%) counties are also over 20%, but the recounts aren’t complete. Five counties have seen precisely zero challenges: Clearwater, Lincoln, Norman, Red Lake, and Redwood. These are tiny counties, and so we might expect that the number of challenges would be low. Nonetheless, even if the fraction of ambiguous ballots is 1% of the residual votes, then the probability that the challenged ballots in these counties would be precisely zero is very small.
It is natural to assume that the rate of challenging will vary according to who is representing the campaigns in each county. The Minnesota recount process is very orderly, but the human element is undoubtedly present, too.