What it takes to make every vote count

MIT hosts Voting Technology Project conference to reinvigorate public discussion on election integrity.


Eleven years after the disputed 2000 presidential election thrust the subject of electoral integrity into the spotlight, many of the challenges that jeopardized that election remain unresolved, voting experts said at an MIT-hosted conference held Saturday.

The conference, “Election Integrity: Past, Present, and Future,” convened by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), brought together election administrators, academics and technology professionals from around the country, and commemorated the 25th anniversary of the First National Symposium on Security and Reliability of Computers in the Electoral Process, held in Boston in 1986.

A central theme of Saturday’s conference was election integrity: assuring that votes are both recorded and counted as they were cast.

Citizen engagement makes a major difference in election integrity, panelists said; one overarching goal of the conference was to reinvigorate public discussion about the use of computers in elections. But to succeed in this task, conference speakers said, electoral experts need the input and support of citizens who understand the need for voter verification, efficient election audits, and security with electronic and Internet voting.

“From roughly 2000 to 2006, there was quite a robust debate about computers and elections, plus quite a lot of academic work,” said Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin (1963) Distinguished Professor of Political Science and MIT’s VTP director.

But, he adds, “if we learned anything from the 2000 election crisis, it is that voting technologies fail when the public and election officials aren’t attentive. We’re seeing right now that states and localities are beginning to slash budgets for conducting elections. The new voting machines that were bought in early 2000 are now coming to the end of their lives. Getting the word out — about the perils of slashing budgets and the difficult issues facing the use of computers in elections — is vitally important.”

The need for tested, secure voting technology

While Internet voting may seem like an attractive option and a logical choice for the 21st century, Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections, urged caution, citing a history of flawed electronic voting. Conference moderator and National Public Radio correspondent Pam Fessler echoed Kellner’s sentiments, noting that more vulnerabilities enter the electoral process as reliance on technology increases.

Two decades ago, Kellner said, the public assumed that direct-recording electronic systems (DREs) would be an efficient replacement for lever machines. However, DRE machines have proven vulnerable to software and hardware errors, as well as hacking.

“At least 35 states now allow military or overseas voters to use some form of electronic transmission of their ballots either by Internet or fax,” Kellner said. “Of course, having a small percentage of the electorate [voting this way] doesn’t pose too much risk, but we now have the public asking, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’”

Panelists also emphasized a lack of understanding between election administrators and technology professionals: Without some technical understanding, it’s difficult for officials to understand what vendors are selling them. In turn, vendors don’t fully appreciate the extent of security needed in the software and hardware they develop.

“In the end,” Stewart said, “election technology will only be improved — made more convenient and secure — by the close cooperation of computer professionals and election administrators.”

Paper chase

Of particular concern, said Pamela Smith, president of VerifiedVoting.org, is the use of Internet voting systems that cannot be audited. Another issue, which she illustrated with a map identifying the current equipment used by each state, is the inability of DREs to recount ballots in a close election. And many key swing states, she said, continue to use unreliable DREs.

But one technology works notably well, Smith said: optical scanning of paper ballots. According to VerifiedVoting.org, this is the most secure way to verify a vote — and costs less than DRE systems. Currently, 38 states have either passed laws requiring voter-verifiable paper records, are considering such a law or have mixed requirements.

“Although major machine-based errors are rare, they do occur,” Stewart said. “When they occur, it undermines the integrity of elections. In political times like today, the last thing we need is something that inaccurately calls into question the integrity of elections.”

Citing insufficient transparency on computer code as a major challenge in today’s electoral process, he added, “the errors that have been reported have usually come about because of the poor quality of the computer code, or the poor quality of the machine-human interface. Without public scrutiny of code, there will always be suspicions.”

Stewart also noted that post-election auditing — not to be confused with a recount of a close election — is essential to verifying that procedures were followed and that the counting processes was error-free.

"An audit should occur regardless of whether or not the election is close,” he said, noting that only about half of states currently require them. “Elections are very complicated events to administer, involving lots of tedious operations — many of which are handled by humans, who are terrible at doing tedious things accurately.”

“We aim to prime the public,” Stewart said of the conference, “to help citizens think about election integrity as they are thinking about who will be nominated by the Republicans for president, and then how the election proceeds in November. We don’t want the country to be in a position next year like we were in 2000, in which problems occur, and the public is left flat-footed in understanding the problems and the possible solutions.”


Topics: Political science, Social sciences, Special events and guest speakers, Technology and society, Voting and elections

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