Researchers look toward standardization in voting process to avoid polling problems

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BY ANDREW KNAPP

WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 – The technological meltdown in voting systems that some experts predicted would plague polling precincts nationwide didn’t materialize in the 2006 midterm election, a joint nonpartisan study found.

But as technology continues to pervade the election process, numerous incidents of vote-tallying problems in states such as Florida and Colorado indicate the need for standardized training of election officials. Many problems can be traced to human error, experts said Wednesday. Other representatives from nonpartisan research organizations Electionline.org and Pew Charitable Trusts called for increased conformity in voting technology.

Panelists who discussed polling problems and successes at a news conference Wednesday agreed that more money should be spent to educate local election officials. This would minimize problems in vote tallying and officials would also be familiar with voting technology.

“As technology becomes more high-tech, the administration of elections has simply become inherently more complex,” Ray Martinez, vice chairman for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told reporters Wednesday during the talk. “It’s no wonder that poll workers and election officials have difficulty understanding new technology when sometimes people like myself can’t seem to understand them either.”

On Nov. 7, several precincts in Connecticut successfully employed, for the first time, an optical-scan voting system, which uses paper ballots that are fed through a machine. Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, said Connecticut succeeded because officials tested the equipment ahead of time.

Chapin said the one lesson from the 2006 election was that “preparation pays.” For other precincts like Sarasota, Fla., where a congressional race remains undecided because of an ongoing audit to confirm results, technology glitches may result in future disenfranchisement and intimidation of voters.

“If, over time, because of continued frustration voters have with the process, [technology] interferes with their own sense that their voice wasn’t added properly to the process, then the societal interest in picking winners and losers is somewhat threatened,” Chapin said.

The Florida race, in which voters were deciding who would replace Rep. Katherine Harris (R), harkened back to the 2000 general election, when disputed butterfly ballots left Harris, then Florida’s secretary of state, mired in a legal battle.

Implementation of a new electronic voting system in that precinct was designed to eliminate the paper trail that was the source of controversy in the 2000 election that eventually declared George W. Bush as president. Instead, election officials are now decrying the system, saying the lack of a paper trail also eliminates an opportunity for a proper recount.

Chapin said the results of the Florida audit will instruct voting precincts nationwide how to conduct elections in 2008 when the presidential elections will take place.

“Whether or not that audit trail is paper is something that still needs examination,” he said. “There is this sense that verifiability is important, and now we need to figure out how to go about doing that.”

David Magleby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University in Utah and a Pew grantee, has conducted considerable research on voting systems nationwide and has advised state election officials of their effectiveness. He said the future of voting lies in technology, but its success depends on developing one system that draws from numerous methods.

“In 2000, Florida had paper ballots, and they could recount them however they wanted to, but we’re pretty sure it screwed up results of the election,” Magleby said, referring to some people who think former Vice President Al Gore actually won Florida and the U.S. presidency.

Most errors in the voting process, experts said, arose when election officials and voters struggled with operating the machine properly. In many states — including Indiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Arkansas and Illinois — poll workers struggled to start up and shut down equipment. Elsewhere — in states such as California, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky and New Jersey — machines simply failed and workers failed to repair them.

In Denver, voters became irate when they were forced to wait about two hours to sign into a voter log book.

“Glitches in any election usually go back to human error and lack of training,” said Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, the top election official in Utah, one of the 2006 success stories in the field of voting technology.

Before the Nov. 7 elections, Herbert launched a vigorous public-awareness and mobilization campaign to educate voters about Utah’s new optical-scan system. Through T-shirts and TV and print advertisements that encouraged voting, Herbert said the endeavor drove nearly 14 percent of voters to the polls early. Technology, he said, was well-received in the state because of the flexibility it offered.

Utah also tested its 7,500 voting machines before they were used.

“This tends to give some comfort to the public that the system is clean and accurate,” Herbert said.

Chapin, the Electionline.org director, said $700-800 million in federal election money is yet to be appropriated. He encouraged Congress to consider funding new technological initiatives tailored to individual precincts’ needs.

Cathy Cox, the secretary of state for Georgia, has eyed voting angst in neighboring Florida and adjusted procedures in her own state according to those observations. As a result, she chastised employing various election technologies nationwide.

Cox disagreed with Herbert, who brushed off her standard “one-size-fits-all” approach to technology by saying communities like the American Indian population in Utah don’t conform to technological changes as well as more urban regions of the nation, such as those found in Georgia. Herbert stressed a case-by-case, local basis when appropriating funding and developing policy at the federal level.

Instead, Cox is a “big proponent of putting in any uniform standards that we can,” she said, indicating the need for federal mandates.

“What’s happening now, [is] they’re trying to custom fit a million different requirements, and it’s making it difficult for technology to advance,” Cox told reporters Wednesday.

She said Georgia’s effort to educate its 159 county election officials has paid off.

“We felt the only way to improve voter accuracy was to move to one system where we could use the efficiency of using a system statewide to train all of our voters on one platform, to educate all of our election officials on one platform, and to enable them to use and share the benefits of information about how to use one system,” Cox said. “I’ve never regretted that decision.”

Merle King, a computer science professor at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, has been in charge of voting software and making sure the programs conform not just to manufacturer specifications, but also to the needs of voters. He said this analysis ensures smooth delivery, maintenance and ongoing support of voting software. As a result, the integrity of Georgia’s system hasn’t been undermined, but King warned of unforeseen problems in the future and stressed the need for further academic research.

“Another unique thing that is unique to elections is what-if scenarios,” King said. “One of the things that drive elections is the law of unintended consequences.”

The American University School of Communication Graduate Program in Journalism works to prepare students for the realities of today's news and information space and the challenges of tomorrow. Find out more by visiting us online at soc.american.edu

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