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01/15/2001 08:00:00

Caltech and MIT Join Forces to Create Reliable, Uniform Voting System

Caltech and MIT are joining forces to develop a United States voting system that will be easy to use, reliable, secure and modestly priced, the presidents of the two universities announced today.

"America needs a uniform balloting procedure," said Caltech President David Baltimore and MIT President Charles M. Vest in a letter to Carnegie Corporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian who is recommending the corporation fund the initial research. "This has become painfully obvious in the current national election, but the issue is deeper and broader than one series of events."

Vest and Baltimore said the new technology "should minimize the possibility of confusion about how to vote, and offer clear verification of what vote is to be recorded. It should decrease to near zero the probability of miscounting votes... The voting technology should be tamper resistant and should minimize the prospect of manipulation and fraud."

The two university presidents proposed that their prestigious institutions give the project high priority for two major reasons:

"First, the technologies in wide use today are unacceptably unreliable. This manifests itself in at least three forms: undercounts (failure to correctly record a choice of candidate), overcounts (voting for two candidates), and missed ballots (machine failure or feeding error). Punch cards and optically scanned ballots are two of the most widely used technologies, and both suffer unacceptably high error rates in all three categories. For example, in the recent Florida election, optical scanning technology had an undercount rate of approximately 3 out of 1,000, and the punch card undercount rate was approximately 15 out of 1,000. Including the other two sources of errors, the overall ballot failure rate with machine counting was about three times this.

"Second, some of the most common types of machinery date from the late nineteenth century and have become obsolete. Most notably, many models of lever machines are no longer manufactured, and although spare parts are difficult to obtain, they are still widely used (accounting for roughly 15 percent of all ballots cast).

"States and municipalities using lever machines will have to replace them in the near future, and the two most common alternatives are punch cards and optical scanning devices. Ironically, many localities in Massachusetts have recently opted for lever machines over punch card ballots because of problems with punch cards registering preferences. "

Gregorian of Carnegie Corporation of New York, will recommend a grant of $250,000 to fund the initial research.

"I want to congratulate the two presidents of our nation's most distinguished universities for their leadership in this welcome and timely initiative on behalf of our election system," said Gregorian. "Voting is the fundamental safeguard of our democracy and we have the technological power to ensure that every person's vote does count. MIT and Caltech have assembled a team of America's top technology and political science scholars to deal with an issue no voter wants ignored. This research is certain to ensure that America's voting process is strengthened."

The project will involve a team of two professors from each university who are experts in technology, design and political science. Initially, they will be charged with defining the problem, surveying experiences with existing voting devices, and making a preliminary analysis of a variety of technological approaches. They will also set goals and create a plan for full-scale research and development of the new system.

The four members of the team are Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professors Stephen Ansolabehere of political science and Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the Media Lab; and Caltech Professors Thomas Palfrey of political science and economics and Jehoshua Bruck of computation and neural systems and electrical engineering. Vest and Baltimore noted their credentials:

"Professors Ansolabehere and Palfrey have deep knowledge of the U.S. electoral process, have facility in tapping into what is known about existing voting systems and equipment, and have expertise in performing the statistical analyses that will be an integral part of the study. Equally important, any system that is suggested must be politically acceptable. Professors Ansolabehere and Palfrey will undertake a consultative process with the various relevant levels of government to find a solution with a reasonable likelihood of acceptance.

"Professor Negroponte and his MIT Media Lab colleagues and Professor Bruck at Caltech combine capabilities in technology, cognitive science, and graphic design. They can assess the various voting schemes that are currently available and, if necessary, design a new system that fulfills the technological and political needs of a fair voting process."

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Caltech Contact: Robert Tindol Media Relations (626) 395-3631

MIT Contact: Kenneth Campbell News Office (617) 253-2700