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NIST Ignores Scientific
Method for Voting Technology
by Lynn Landes 12/15/03
The conference was crawling with scientists. But,
the scientific method was a no-show at last week's First NIST
(National Institute for Science and Technology) Symposium on Building Trust
and Confidence in Voting Systems in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
There was no apparent interest in
addressing a fundamental question: After 115 years of Americans
using voting machines, are any of these contraptions (with or without
paper printers) better, worse, or as good as hand-counted paper ballots for
accuracy, usability, and vulnerability?
The recent avalanche of bad publicity, including
reports from Congress and universities warning about computerized
voting machines, plus a steady stream of voting machine
"glitches" and irregularities, have clearly shaken public confidence
in America's voting systems. And that has the elections industry rattled.
Getting Americans to "trust" in new
voting technology was the focus of the conference. There was little
discussion about trusting voters with marking, casting, and counting the
ballots, even though recent studies in the limited category of
"lost votes" (overvotes and undervotes), show that hand-counted
paper ballots, and therefore - voters, are the best performers.
"The difference between the best performing
and worst performing technologies is as much as 2 percent of ballots cast.
Surprisingly, (hand-counted) paper ballots—the oldest technology—show the
best performance." This is the finding of two Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) political science professors, Dr. Stephen Ansolabehere and
Dr. Charles Stewart III, in a September 25, 2002 study entitled, Voting
Technology and Uncounted Votes in the United States. This study was an
update of a previous CalTech/MIT study.
There was also no discussion at the conference of
"lost ballots" - which occurs when voters fail to cast a ballot,
even though they go into the voting booth. And no discussion of "lost
voters" - voters who may not go to the polls because
they dislike voting machines, and may not vote by absentee
ballot either, because of the extra effort involved.
The general presumption at the conference seemed
to be that, in the voting booth, machines perform better than humans...
despite evidence to the contrary.
Dr. Avi Rubin gave an overview of the
now infamous and very faulty Diebold elections code that was left unsecured on
the Internet by the company. While Dr. Rebecca Mercuri and Dr. David Dill
addressed the question more directly. In formal presentations they
described the lack of integrity and security in paperless voting
systems. They urged the attachment of printers to touchscreen machines,
so that voters could verify their ballots.
And although this system is a big step forward
from paperless touchscreens, the question remains... is it better than
hand-cast hand-counted paper ballots?
Dill was asked what election officials are
supposed to do, since touchscreens that produce paper may not be
widely available by the 2004 election. Dill's simple reply,
"They can always go back to paper ballots." Sweet words to
those who believe that the right to vote belongs to the voter, not technology.
And it was that very issue which was
addressed toward the end of the conference: Who is really voting - the voter
or the technology? Dr. Ronald Rivest (MIT) observed in a
matter-of-fact manner, that technology has replaced the voter in the actual
process of marking, casting, and counting the vote. He offered no
justification for that state-of-affairs, but instead suggested that
adopting the latest technology was inevitable in any context.
Rivest went on to say that confidence
in election results is more important than trust in any particular
voting system. But, voters may not buy that. In what contest
would that view prevail? A horse race? A football game? Bowling? Would
Dr. Rivest play poker with a stacked deck? If participants
don't have confidence in the rules of the game, then the losers will not
likely accept the outcome.
Although there was a small, but determined group of
computer experts and others who were supporting Mercuri, Dill, and
Rubin, most of the conference attendees were business reps, state
elections directors (some contemplating their next career move), and federal
officials (most of whom appeared to be on the side of paperless voting).
It is worth noting and that there was no real
discussion of Internet voting, the most vulnerable of all the voting technologies
to vote fraud or technical failure. Overseas military and other civilians will
be able to vote on the Internet in 2004, courtesy of Accenture (the former and highly controversial
Andersen Consulting). Michigan Democrats will
also use the Internet for their presidential primary caucus. And, The Help
America Vote Act (HAVA) is promoting Internet voting through
funding of projects, such as The National
Student/Parent Mock Election. Internet voting proponents are
most likely relieved that this technology is flying under the
public's radar, for now.
Jim Dickson of the American Association of People
with Disabilities (AAPD), and Steven Booth from The National
Federation of the Blind (NFB), were at the conference lobbying hard for
paperless electronic voting. And that's their right, but the misinformation
they pass along, is not. Dickson gives the impression that blind
voters can't vote privately and independently without the use of
touchscreens. But, simple low-tech ballot templates and audiocassettes,
which allow blind voters to do just that, are in use around the world.
Since the year 2000, Rhode Island has made them available to the
disabled. When Steve Booth was asked about his experience with ballot
templates, he said that he didn't know anything about them. However, a NFB
representative in Rhode Island told this writer, "everyone (at
NFB) knows about it."
It is also irritating to see Dickson at conference
after conference, continue to claim that HAVA mandates that each voting
precinct have a touchscreen machine for the disabled, when HAVA also allows
for "other voting systems," which could include low-tech
solutions, such as ballot templates.
Former International Foundation for Election
Systems (IFES) executive, Paul DeGregorio, was also at the conference.
Internationally, IFES promotes the use of ballot templates for the disabled.
Which begs the question, why do the leaders of organizations for
the disabled in America act as though they never heard of this
low-tech option? DeGregorio is the Bush Administration's lead
man on the newly appointed Election Assistance Commission (EAC), which
will set the new voluntary federal standards. Some voting rights
activists are concerned that new HAVA standards may discourage low-tech
alternatives, such as ballot templates, in favor of the highly vulnerable touchscreens
and Internet voting system.
Low-tech solutions to illiteracy and language barriers were also
M.I.A. (missing-in-action) at the NIST conference. Speaker after speaker
suggested that only touchscreens could easily accommodate voters with
different languages, when it is common knowledge among voting experts that this
problem is easily handled by simply assigning numbers to candidates.
Voters come to the polls already knowing the number of their
candidate. Yet, once again the conference seemed unaware or uninterested in a low-tech
not all was lost. Some very nice folks from New Hampshire
were there. Twenty percent of their voters still use hand-counted paper ballots.
Maybe the Granite State will lead this nation back to election sanity. Meanwhile,
there's a massive increase in absentee voting nationwide. In the 2003 California
Recall election, 30% of voters used absentee ballots. The state of Oregon
conducts mail-in voting only, and 22 states allow absentee voting for any
reason. And although the public's shift to absentee voting is certainly
not a good thing in terms of voting security, it is sending a message to
are choosing paper in growing numbers. And that speaks volumes about
trust in America's voting technology.