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Scientists Present Study of Nation's Faulty Voting System to Policymakers
The results of an effort to address flaws in the nation's voting systems were presented at a Congressional briefing on voting technology that was organized on July 12 by AAAS's Center for Science, Technology, and Congress.
About 50 members of the political and scientific communities gathered on Capitol Hill to hear faculty from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) discuss their joint project to examine the reliability and uniformity of U.S. voting systems. The researchers, who had worked on the project for about five months, spoke about specific problems plaguing the nation's current voting process, the lack of quality standards in the operation of voting machines, the need for federal funding and guidelines, and, finally, their recommendations for improving the nation's voting system. MIT's Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor, led the presentation on the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, noting that as many as six million of the 100 million votes cast were not counted due to excessively long lines, confusing voting methods, or equipment failure. He also described flaws in the security of the nation's voting process, characterized by duplicate voter registration, fraudulent absentee ballots and coercion of voters.
Thomas R. Palfrey, a professor of economics and political science at Caltech, spoke of variations within the voting industry, describing both the "highly concentrated" industry of voting machine vendors and the "highly disintegrated and fragmented" industry of election administrators. He noted that counties spent an average of $10 per voter per year in the 2000 election, and that in the course of 15 to 20 years, it would cost about $2 per voter to upgrade to an electronic voting system or to one that optically scans ballots.
As a final recommendation, speakers concluded that in order to upgrade and improve the nation's voting system, it would be necessary to phase out the punch-card voting systems and do away with the monopolies that control the nation's voting machine industry. They also recommended that the federal government provide funding and assistance to local election officials, requiring them to adhere to federal standards and certification procedures. Federal funds should also be set aside to provide for voter education, poll worker training, and the development and administration of standards and certification, the speakers suggested.
At least one of the policymakers at the briefing opposed such a role for the federal government, however. Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers, Chairman of House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards, and sponsor of H.R. 2275, the Voting Technology Standards Act of 2001, argued that the involvement of the federal government "could actually delay the process" of improving the nation's voting systems. Instead, Ehlers' bill seeks to establish a commission to develop voluntary technical standards for voting machines and systems. Ehlers, along with Congressman Bob Ney, Chairman of the Committee on House Administration and Congressman Steny Hoyer, the Ranking Member of the Committee on House Administration, served as hosts for the briefing.
The Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project was created by Caltech President David Baltimore and MIT President Charles Vest in December 2000, with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
AAAS established the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress, which organized the briefing, in July 1994 with funding from the Carnegie Corporation and the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund. The Center provides information to Congress on current science and technology issues and assists the science and engineering community in understanding and working with Congress. The Center publishes the newsletter Science and Technology in Congress monthly when Congress is in session.
-- Nisha Narayanan