Is high-tech election gear the answer to ballot blues?

Is high-tech election gear the answer to ballot blues?<@VM>Former Navy systems designer creates one-time-use electronic voting system


Law ultimately determines an election's outcome, but as the 2000 presidential election demonstrated, a jurisdiction's choice of voting equipment can affect an election's results.

In the wake of Florida's election brouhaha, whether state and local governments need to upgrade voting equipment is suddenly a hot topic.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed a bill in the House of Representatives that calls for a national study of voting systems. And Sens. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are calling for a presidential commission to make recommendations about voting system upgrades.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening recently formed a special committee to evaluate voting procedures, review existing vote recount methods and recommend changes to state law governing the election of public officials and determination of ballot issues.

The states of New York and Massachusetts, as well as several other state and local governments, are joining in the discussion of replacing old voting equipment.

New York continues, for instance, to use mechanical lever voting machines invented in 1892, even though the last lever machine was manufactured in 1982. Some of the state's machines are at least 50 years old.

Lever machines are used in about 19 percent of the country, according to a 1998 study by Election Data Services Inc., a Washington political consulting firm that uses geographic information systems to analyze census and political data.

The report showed that 27 percent of the nation's polling precincts use optical scanning equipment and about 9 percent use direct record and other electronic equipment. About 2 percent of voting jurisdictions still use paper ballots that are hand-marked and hand-counted.

Check the date

But a large portion of the nation's voting jurisdictions, about 31 percent, use prescored punch card balloting equipment, like the Votomatic equipment used in Florida. The patent on the Votomatic expired in the early 1980s.

William F. Galvin, Massachusetts commonwealth secretary, said his state banned the Votomatic in 1998 after a contested congressional race between Philip Johnston and Congressman William D. Delahunt.

Johnston originally won the race with a lead of 266 votes. Delahunt contested the results and won after a recount. Johnston sued in a case that eventually went before the commonwealth's highest court. But Delahunt prevailed as the ultimate winner.

'Punch cards are unreliable,' Galvin said. 'I won't have them in my state.'
Roy G. Saltman agreed.

Saltman, a former computer scientist and project leader for the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology, said he sounded the alarm in a study for NIST 12 years ago about the inaccuracies of prescored punch card systems.

'Prescored punch cards are not user-friendly,' he said. 'There are too many issues of misalignment, issues surrounding the types of card stock used, and voters have a difficult time determining which is the right hole to punch.'

'Congress was warned many years ago about the faulty systems that are out there and they haven't done anything, then the responsibility rests with them,' former federal computer scientist Roy G. Saltman said. 'Congress has failed.'
Saltman referred to the 1993 Wisconsin 1st Congressional District election to replace Les Aspin, who later joined the Clinton administration as secretary of Defense.

'There were only two people on the ballot, no issues, nothing else, and yet there was 4.5 percent of the ballots that registered as no votes,' Saltman said. 'It would only seem logical that if someone was going to take the time to go to the polls to vote in a race for one office, that the person would actually vote.'

Saltman said problems with prescored punch cards often arise with the first candidates listed on the ballots'usually presidential candidates.

'One can only fault the voters to a certain extent,' Saltman said. 'But when Congress was warned many years ago about the faulty systems that are out there and they haven't done anything, then the responsibility rests with them. Congress has failed.'

Congress needs to beef up the voting equipment standards maintained by the Federal Election Commission, he said.

The commission, an independent regulatory agency created by Congress in 1975, establishes election law provisions, such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions. FEC also monitors campaign finance information and oversees public funding of presidential elections.

'Right now the FEC standards are strictly voluntary, unless a state adopts them as law,' Saltman said. 'The standards don't include any human factors, and there is nothing even said about chads.'

But George Gilbert, director of elections for Guilford County, N.C., said Congress should not mandate the use of one uniform voting system.

Worth the cost?

'It will create a monopoly, eliminate innovation and costs of equipment will skyrocket' he said. 'If states would have mandated the use of one voting system in the 1980s, we would all now be using punch cards.'

Jim Willard, a naval weapons software and systems specialist and chief executive officer of Paper Computer Corp. of Gaithersburg, Md., said the voting process begins with the procurement of voting equipment, including machines, ballots and the counting systems.

Willard drafted the text of Maryland's 1996 law adopting electronic voting systems. He testified before the House Subcommittee on Elections in 1994 supporting alternative balloting techniques.

Willard said state and local election offices often rely on vendors, consultants and special committees to offer advice about what types of equipment to buy.

But generally the deciding factor comes down to one thing: budget.

Linda Lamone, Maryland's elections administrator, said when elected officials are faced with making choices about how to spend a limited budget, education, crime prevention and road repair outweigh voting equipment upgrades.

'It's not that the elected official is being negligent, it's just that they have to make a decision, and it has to be the best decision if they want to get re-elected,' she said.

Gary L. Greenhalgh, FEC's former assistant staff director, said elections are a disaster-driven system.

'Nothing is going to get fixed when it isn't a high priority,' he said. 'Let's face it, counties are squeezed for money, and something that is used as intermittently as voting equipment is not a priority. But now, I suspect voting equipment will come up the food chain a little faster. It may even get up to the level of new school swimming pools.'After spending years researching the voting industry'something Jim Willard says doesn't really exist'the systems designer created a disposable electronic voting system.

'One of the biggest issues with voting equipment is storage and maintenance costs,' said Willard, chief executive officer of Paper Computer Corp. of Gaithersburg, Md. 'You not only have to store optical scan and touch-screen systems, but after they've been stagnant for a long time, computer batteries run down. Maintenance and repair for those kinds of systems is also expensive.'

Willard's Votation system has full-face, push-button electronic ballots and uses wireless technology. The system runs off of a saltwater battery.

Voters use a one-time-use cardboard magnetic card to activate their ballots. Encrypted information is transmitted over a secure wireless link from voting booths to the central processors at the voters' precincts.

Voting information on the central processor is transmitted over private telephone lines to a database at election headquarters.

The system comes as a kit, including all customized hardware and software and folding cardboard voting booths.

Although Willard attracted little interest among potential investors when he created the system in the mid-1990s, he said he has received calls from venture capitalists in the wake of the recent Florida election fiasco.

'I had to kiss a lot of frogs' without finding a prince, Willard said, describing his first efforts at obtaining financial backing for his system.

Willard designed the system using failure mode effects and casualty analyses, tests that intentionally fail the system to record what happens and create a way to check if data has been corrupted.

The software that operates the voting booth continuously monitors itself to ensure it is operating properly and has not been tampered with, Willard said. Audit trail data is stored with vote data to ensure proof of a vote's creation.

He said the system also includes redundant data collection and storage and a continuous self-testing mechanism.

'In any voting system, you have to have quality control,' Willard said.

'Donna Young

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