Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



PRAIRIE VOICES: Precise vs. perfect

Ted Selker is MIT director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. For the project, Selker is building and testing technology for improving security and accuracy in voting.

Ted Selker is MIT director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. For the project, Selker is building and testing technology for improving security and accuracy in voting.

Before coming to MIT, he was an IBM fellow and directed IBM's User Systems Ergonomics Research Lab. Selker's research has contributed to products ranging from notebook computers to operating systems; his work has resulted in many products (such as the TrackPoint in-keyboard pointing device found in many notebook computers) and many patents and papers.

He was co-recipient of the Computer Science Policy Leader award from Scientific American magazine (2004) for his work on voting technology.

Selker spoke with Herald Staff Writer Dorreen Yellow Bird.

You are involved with the Voting Technology Project, a joint effort by the California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Can you tell us how electronic voting is around the country and in local area? How reliable and secure are the new machines?


I am the co-director from MIT. We have another from Caltech.

In this country, we have a separation of the state and federal governments that is very carefully set up, so that there is autonomy among the states. States just love to fight for it, too: In Brazil, they have 170,000 voting machines that are exactly the same. In this country, we have different machines in many jurisdictions. I'm in Cambridge, Mass., right now. They have a different kind of voting system here than Arlington, Mass., does, and Arlington is right next door. That's this country.

To take it one step further, Cambridge has a completely different way of counting votes than does Arlington, which doesn't have a mayor. It has a town committee, which is 140 elected people. The difficulties of having rules that are different throughout the country mean that anybody who makes voting equipment ends up selling it for more money than you'd expect because it is so complicated and setting them up is more precarious and more difficult.

What has happened and is improving on that are several things. First of all, the federal government in 2002 -- based in part on work we've done at Caltech and MIT -- decided to start something called the Election Assistance Commission. That commission's job falls under the "Help American Vote Act," which directed that we would have uniform set of standards for voting technology that would be voluntarily bought into by the states. Forty states decided to go with that.

This document has about 800 or 900 pages that talk about everything: How are you going to test? What kind of computers can be used? How can they be connected to each other? How should you design the ballots? And so on. You can go to eac.gov Web site and find out about it.

In some places such as Georgia, Nevada and Maryland, they use the same kind of voting machine throughout the state. We have seen huge improvements in the states where they have done that -- improving uniformity.

Another big change that is uniform throughout the land came about Jan. 6, when every state was required to have a statewide registration database. Every single registered voter in the state is on a database somewhere so they can make sure you aren't registered two or three times.

That's a good idea. The bad part is that it's brand-new this year. So, we're a little scared about how that's going to play out, especially if there are mistakes, glitches or problems.


There are some other changes. In all federal elections, there will be "second chance" voting. That means anytime you vote, there will be a time in the process where you are encouraged to look at what you've done and qualify it. On the electronic voting machines, they pop up a whole screen that shows you how you voted. The only way optical scans do that is by popping out your ballot if you voted for, say, two presidents.

What are some of the risks with these new machines?

The biggest risks are that people won't know how to set them up and take them down, or they don't set them up on time or run out of batteries because they forget to plug them in. That's the biggest risk.

The next is that ballot will be poorly designed and that the touch screens will be miscalibrated. That means voters have to pay attention: When you are voting on one of these machines, you should make sure it says who you voted for.

People very commonly, on all voting equipment, make selections next to what they meant to. It is a very common: They run their finger across and thought they were on the correct line, but they were on the next line.

This happens on electronic machines as well, but the good part is that the machines can flag it. You'll see a light blink. You'll say, "Whoops, I voted for Bush, and I didn't mean to."

On a touch machine, when you touch your selection, it will light up and tell you you've made that selection. What I like about it is that older people can see it so clearly.

Another change in the Help America Vote Act is if you come to a polling place and you're not on the register, you have to be given a provisional ballot so that at least you can vote in the federal election. The rules vary. Make sure you check with your poll workers so they can help you find out where you are registered before you get a provisional ballot, because it is better to vote where you're supposed to. That's because the rules vary: Some places, all of your selections will count; and in some places, if you even provisional, they won't record your selections.


Are there any states that are still using paper ballots only?

Yes, there are some places that still are voting just on paper. We believe that is a very dangerous procedure because it has a lot of potential for fraud and mistakes. But people do it.

In North Dakota, we don't register to vote. Is that a problem?

True: You are the only place in the country where that happens. Registration started in 1890 and in the 1970s; there still were six states that didn't register

I actually think it is a good thing. You are doing something good.


Well, it used to be that registration was used to keep people from "walk-around voting" -- you vote here and there and everywhere. But now, registration often is used to keep people from voting at all.

For example, in some states, if your name and address on your driver's license isn't the same as on your registration, they kick you off of the registration database. What if you didn't update your driver's license or had just moved? The registration database in California for the Department of Motor Vehicles is not updated for six months. That means if you move and reregister, you can't vote for six months, which is ridiculous.


In North Dakota, we have a paper ballot that goes into a machine for counting, so we have a "paper trail." Is that common?

That's called an "optical scan" system, and we have it in more than 40 percent of the country. It good as long as someone doesn't come along with a pencil or fingernail when they are looking at the paper ballots or adds some ballots to the pile.

How about hackers? Can the machines be easily hacked into?

All that requires is that someone has access to it. Guess what? That scanner you have is a printer. It counts those ballots because there are marks at the edge of the ballot. That matches up with a ballot inside the computer. But what if that ballot was set up wrong or printed incorrectly?

Just to give you an example what I mean by that, if those little alignment marks on the edge your ballot are offset somewhat, it won't count the ballot correctly. What's hard is deciding when to look at those ballots to recount. Is it really time throw out what the computer said and count by hand? Remember, counting by hand often is difficult to do accurately because people play shenanigans when they are hand-counting, as well as just being inaccurate when doing repetitive tasks that take a long time.

You think you are immune to this stuff with an optical scan -- and everybody thinks they are -- but they aren't.

Machines can be hacked. How do we prevent the hacking? We prevent the hacking by having multiple people from different organizations aware of and involved in checking the ballot before it is printed, watching the printing, making sure the chain of custody of the ballot being transported is carefully done, making sure that ballots are given out to only registered voters and are counted correctly.

So, nobody goes near the electronic voting machine and does anything without having someone else watch them who also is knowledgeable. These are called chain-of-custody procedures, and basically, there are problems with them everywhere. People are sloppy about protecting who gets access to all kinds of equipment, including voting machines.


My request to the people of North Dakota is that your poll workers demonstrate they can operate the machines before they do it in front of the voters. And they shouldn't open the voting machines to take out the ballots during the day of elections by themselves.

One thing that happens sometimes is that the voting machine will fill up. Then, the poll workers will open it up, take out the ballots and put them somewhere because they want to make room for more ballots. But where did they put them? They opened a ballot box on the day of an election. I've seen that happen; nobody watches the guy who takes them out and what he does with them. You want to be careful.

What To Read Next
Get Local