Science Author Ted Selker See Headphones as Key to Voting Reform
The nationwide push to require that electronic voting machines provide printed paper receipts for vote verification may create unnecessary complexity to voting and voting administration, according to Ted Selker, the author of a new Science paper who testified before Congress on Tuesday 21 June.
Though paper receipts have been hailed by many election reform advocates as a way to protect against fraud and errors in electronic voting systems, Selker, an MIT professor and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, recommended that voters be given headphones in the voting booth rather than a paper receipt after the vote.
In his testimony before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Selker said his research found significant promise for a Verified Audio Audit Transcript Trail system. With the paper trail system, a voter receives a paper receipt from a printer attached to an electronic voting machine to verify that the vote was recorded properly, Selker said. A voter using the audio trail system puts on headphones in the voting booth and hears an audio confirmation for each selection.
Selker's policy position is detailed in a paper in the 24 June issue of Science. His research can be found at the voting technology project Web site.
One major difference between the two systems, testified Selker, is that when using a paper trail, the verification occurs at the end of the voting process, giving the voter time to forget the original selections. With the audio trail system, the verification is done throughout the voting process, combining the audio and visual perceptions, thus creating a more engaging and effective voting process.
In order to compare the audio trail system with the paper one, Selker's research team conducted a study which, among other things, tested how many errors users were able to find with each system. The results suggested that people are much more likely to notice errors when given a combination of visual and audio prompts.
"The numbers at each level are quite startling," testified Selker. "Out of 108 [simulated] elections that contained errors, 14 errors were reported to us in the [audio trail] audit, while no errors were reported in the [paper trail] audit."
At Tuesday's packed hearing on publicly verifiable elections, Selker was joined by Conny B. McCormack, Los Angeles County registrar-recorder and clerk, who expressed similar sentiments about the use of a paper trail system. McCormack testified that based on her 23 years of experience as a county election official, she believes the addition of the paper trail component to states' voting systems "could, unintentionally, shatter the system and significantly erode public confidence in the process." She explained that a federal paper-trail mandate would add significant cost and complexity to the voting process.
In his testimony and in his new Science paper, Selker suggests that before paper-trail printers are mandated, officials should evaluate their effectiveness and not obviate other, possibly better, methods.
"An ideal system would improve voting accuracy even as it creates a back-up record for auditing purposesinstead of increasing the opportunities for mistakes by adding complexity, as the paper-trail method does," Selker writes in his Science paper.
He believes that technological improvements can only succeed if they are supplemented with improved training and procedures. The Science paper points to Charles Stewart's research, which showed that the most dramatic improvements occurred in states that invested heavily in not only new technology, but also in training and voter education. In his Science paper, Selker briefly describes the successful and unsuccessful use of voting technology and auditing practices in various states.
Several other expert witnesses at the hearing presented their experiences with voting technology and offered suggestions for improving the current systems. Stanford University computer science Professor David L. Dill testified that it is impossible to create a secure electronic voting machine. Suggesting that electronic voting is "hostile" to election transparency, he said a return to a paper ballot system would make elections more trustworthy.
Also testifying was Jim Dickson, vice president of government affairs for the American Association of People with Disabilities. Dickson opposed potential legislation mandating the use of the paper-trail system, or voting receipts, saying the method has not been properly tested. And, he said, because the voting system requires third-party assistance, it can prevent disabled Americans from voting secretly and independently.
Dickson, who is blind, recounted several humiliating voting experiences, one of which was of an election poll worker publicly expressing displeasure with Dickson's choice of candidates as the worker helped Dickson cast his ballot.
"There's no perfect system," said U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), ranking member of the committee and author of the Help America Vote Act of 2000, which introduced some important advances to the voting process. "There's a variety of ways of getting the same result without mandating that all states use the same system." He suggested allowing the states flexibility in choosing a voter verification system, but within specific parameters.
27 June 2005