Vote systems: Top tech schools vow to improve US methods

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PASADENA, CALIF. -- The vaunted punch card system, fashioned first by inventor Herman Hollerith in the 19th Century, took a beating in the last US election, but leading technologists are ready to take up the challenge of ensuring a better voting measurement system for future elections. Heads of MIT and Caltech Thursday announced a collaborative project to develop a reliable and secure voting machine.

The goal is to use technology to prevent a recurrence of the problems that plagued the 2000 US presidential election.

"It is embarrassing to America when technology fails and puts democracy to such a test as it did this month," said Caltech President David Baltimore. "Academic institutions have a responsibility to help repair the voting process so that we don't see anything like this again."

"This project is intended to protect the system from the problems we've seen in the last election," Nobel prize-winner Baltimore said.

MIT President Charles M. Vest, speaking via Web link from Cambridge, Mass., echoed Baltimore's sentiments.

The Carnegie Corporation has pledged $250,000 to fund the initial phase of research. A team of two professors from each university who are experts in technology, design and political science will use the grant. The four members of the team are Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professors Stephen Ansolabehere of political science and Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the MIT Media Lab; and Caltech Professors Thomas Palfrey of political science and economics and Jehoshua Bruck of computation and neural systems and electrical engineering.

Said Ansolabehere: "We are going to consider voting technologies from the paper ballots of the nineteenth century to the latest. First, we'll look, literally, at what people do in the voting booth. There, our goal is to lower voter confusion.

"Second, we'll look at how votes are counted, comparing the precinct level to a central counting agency. We will look at the strengths and weaknesses of voting technologies, find the greatest weakness and work from there. Our goal is to find the most reliable among existing technologies."

Professor Palfrey of Caltech noted there were "issues that didn't hit the press in Florida but that are critical, including comparing the cost of existing technologies to the cost of standardization and modernization, which could run into several billions of dollars.

Despite recent difficulties, mail-in and on-line balloting have been championed in some circles. "Whatever is invented will include some interface with machines," said famed technology guru Negroponte, "whether we vote by computer, paper or in a voting booth.”

"Right now, there's no feedback at all in voting," said Negroponte. "You push the button. Nothing happens. It's like when you push the elevator button and nothing happens -- you don't know if the elevator is broken or the [button] light is broken.

"It would be good to have some degree of feedback in voting. For example, you might get some feedback saying, 'you voted for x,'" he noted.

Vest and Baltimore said the new technology "should minimize the possibility of confusion about how to vote, and offer clear verification of what vote is to be recorded. It should decrease to near zero the probability of miscounting votes. The voting technology should be tamper-resistant and should minimize the prospect of manipulation and fraud."

Said Dr. Vest: "This is a project we could have tackled any time, but the truly bizarre circumstances of the recent presidential election put it on the front burner. We are also at a technological point where a solution is highly likely."

"There are times when events overtake us. This is a good time and a necessary time to be doing this," said Dr. Baltimore.

Includes material from press releases.

Can efforts to improve voting machine technology succeed? Are machines as fallible as humans? Is Herman Hollerith to blame for our latest political drama? Do you have a solution?
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