AAAS expert panel calls for voter-system research and reform

09/21/04

Warn of broad vulnerability

WAHINGTON DC -- A panel of top experts on election technology and administration warned Tuesday that the American system of voting is broadly vulnerable to error and abuse, and called for a crash-course of study and reform to make results more reliable and to promote better access by voters, especially those who have historically encountered serious impediments to exercising their right to vote.

In findings released after a weekend conference convened by AAAS, the 18-member panel concluded that research into new voting technology and the behavior of voters, election officials and poll workers will be essential to reforms that ensure maximum voter participation, trust and confidence while guaranteeing privacy and the integrity of the results. The research - and the reforms - will become increasingly important as the United States considers moving toward an Internet-based voting system, the panelists said.

"Everything is connected to everything else," said Shirley Malcom, AAAS's head of education and human resources. "Within the roots of the system there may be a connection to disempowerment and disenfranchisement."

Without reform, American elections may be increasingly subject to the sort of profound dispute and diminished credibility that followed the contested 2000 presidential tally in Florida. "The 2000 election showed how easily people's faith in the electoral system and process can be lost," said Henry Brady, professor of political science and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. "If we are going to have a strong country, a strong democracy, it's probably worth investing a relatively small sum of money in understanding the problems and trying to solve those problems."

AAAS's Science and Policy as well as Education and Human Resources staff organized the 17-18 September workshop, with funding from the National Science Foundation, to develop a research agenda on electronic voting technology amid growing concerns about the electoral system's integrity. Those concerns emerged when the dead-heat Florida election between George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore was marred by flawed ballots, miscounts and allegations that African Americans in some areas had been systematically blocked from voting. The worries have expanded since, as auditors in several states have identified vulnerabilities in new voting alternatives.

While pointing out that problems can arise with any form of casting votes, panelists noted that new touch-screen computer technology has come under recent sustained attack because most such systems leave no paper trail to verify the final count. Last year, computer scientists at Rice University and Johns Hopkins University reported significant security flaws in Diebold Inc.'s AccuVote-TS electronic voting system. Just last week, the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the use of similar Diebold machines, which do not print out ballots as they are cast.

"What can go wrong? Everything," lamented AAAS panelist Susan Inman, director of elections for the Pulaski County Election Commission in Little Rock, Ark. "If the method of voting is made too complex for a poll worker to manage, it can create more problems than are solved." Panelist George Gilbert, director of elections for the Guilford County Board of Elections in North Carolina, put it more tersely: "The system is a Rubik's Cube inside a maze."

Reflecting the breadth of the issue, participants in the workshop included social and behavioral scientists, experts in cybersecurity and voting machines, representatives of public interest groups, and workers in the trenches - the election officials who actually oversee the whole voting process. Since any practical research agenda will require funding, the two-day session also included representatives of government and nonprofit funding agencies as observers.

Participants in the workshop agreed that improving performance demands a foundation of new scientific research. Research and potential reform areas identified by the workshop panelists fall generally into four categories:

  • Voting technologies. This segment includes possible research projects on the performance of new voting technologies; the error rates of existing technologies and their susceptibility to tampering and fraud; trade-offs between open source and proprietary software in electronic voting systems; the impact of ballot design on voters' understanding of the process; and studies of security in technologies similar to voting machines, such as ATMs and slot machines.

  • Voters' knowledge, perception, and behavior. Recognizing that voters possess widely different cultural backgrounds, spoken languages, levels of education and literacy, and accessibility to the polls, this group focuses on voters' direct interaction with the electoral system. Favored projects include studies of the factors that encourage citizens to vote or discourage them from doing so; sources of voters' information on the electoral system; voters' satisfaction with the voting process; possible tools that can encourage citizens to use new voting technologies; and the impact of such factors as media reporting and legislative hearings on individuals' perceptions of the voting process and their participation in it.

  • Election administration. As election technology has developed, local and state election officials have become more powerful and their jobs have become more complex, requiring that they oversee a complex array of technology and an army of often inexperienced poll workers. The panel suggested research into the impact on privacy and security of centralized databases of voter records; ways in which election officials and designers of polling places can enhance the efficiency of the voting process; methods of choosing new voting technologies; the qualifications and training of election officials and poll workers; and the effects on election administration of changes in individual jurisdictions' political leadership.

  • Accountability mechanisms. Researchers want detailed understanding of how to assure voters that their votes were cast and counted as they intended; the best ways to audit elections and to provide, test and validate audit trails; methods of verifying voting software throughout the voting process; and the impact of proprietary voting technology on accountability.

    "Ultimately, the findings and recommendations produced by this effort could contribute to an improved understanding of the comparative advantages and disadvantages of various voting systems and to knowledge that can inform critical personal and policy decisions about voting in the United States," said conference organizer Mark S. Frankel, who directs the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law program at AAAS.

    With or without the research, the panelists agreed that the American voting system is in flux. "This research is important because we have to be prepared for changes we know are coming," said Michael Traugott, professor of communication studies and political science at the University of Michigan. "There seems to be a general consensus that we're moving to a vote-anywhere voting system [involving use of the Internet] that will give citizens a very wide range of ways to participate."

    To improve the chances that the recommended projects will receive funding, the workshop's participants agreed to draft a letter to funding agencies, calling on them to help support the broad research agenda.

    Source: Eurekalert & others

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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