02/05/2001 08:00:00

Caltech/MIT Issue Voting Technology Report to Florida Task Force

PASADENA, Calif.- The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has submitted a preliminary report to the task force studying the election in Florida. Their nationwide study of voting machines offers further evidence supporting the task force's call to replace punch card voting in Florida. The statistical analysis also uncovered a more surprising finding: electronic voting, as currently implemented, has performed less well than was widely believed.

The report examines the effect of voting technologies on unmarked and/or spoiled ballots. Researchers from both universities are collaboratively studying five voting technologies: paper ballots with hand-marked votes, lever machines, punch cards, optical scanning devices, and direct-recording electronic devices (DREs), which are similar to automatic teller machines.

The study focuses on so-called "undervotes" and "overvotes," which are combined into a group of uncounted ballots called "residual votes." These include ballots with votes for more than one candidate, with no vote, or that are marked in a way that is uncountable.

Careful statistical analysis shows that there are systematic differences across these technologies, and that paper ballots, optical scanning devices, and lever machines have significantly lower residual voting rates than punch-card systems and DREs. Overall, the residual voting rate for the first three systems averages about 2 percent, and for the last two systems averages about 3 percent. This study is the most extensive analysis ever of the effects of voting technology on under- and overvotes. The study covers the entire country for all presidential elections since 1988, and examines variations at the county level. When the study is complete, it will encompass presidential elections going back to 1980, and will examine a finer breakdown of the different technologies, and a breakdown of residual votes into its two components: over- and undervotes. A final report will be released in June. The Voting Project was the brainchild of California Institute of Technology president David Baltimore in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Charles Vest. It was announced in December 2000 and faculty from both campuses immediately began collecting data and studying the range of voting methods across the nation in the hope of avoiding in the future the vote-counting chaos that followed the 2000 presidential election.

The analysis is complicated by the fact that voting systems vary from county to county and across time. When a voting system is switched, say from lever machines to DREs, the number of residual votes can go up due to voter unfamiliarity with the new technology.

"We don't want to give the impression that electronic systems are necessarily inaccurate, but there is much room for improvement," said Thomas Palfrey, Caltech professor of economics and political science.

"Electronic voting technology is in its infancy and seems the most likely one to benefit significantly from new innovations and increased voter familiarity," states the 11-page report.

Caltech Contact: Jill Perry Media Relations (626) 395-3226 jperry@caltech.edu

MIT Contact: Kenneth Campbell News Office (617) 253-2700 kdc@mit.edu