04/16/2003 07:00:00

Voting: Where We Have Been, Where We Are Going

PASADENA, Calif. - Americans are proud of their democracy. But the controversy over the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election revealed profound flaws in the way we vote. The smooth transition of government, a hallmark of American democracy, seemed to hang on the workings of antiquated voting technology--the punch card and the chad.

"America is on the verge of a profound transformation in the way people vote," notes Michael Alvarez, a professor of political science at the California Institute of Technology. As computer literacy and information technology become universal, the momentum is developing for an entirely new voting system: the Internet.

On Wednesday, April 23, Alvarez will discuss the ongoing transformation in how we run elections in his talk, "Voting: Where We Have Been, Where We Are Going." It is one of the ongoing Earnest C. Watson Lecture Series that takes place on the Caltech campus.

The problems in the 2000 election were even deeper, and more difficult to resolve, than just old voting machines. "As many as six million votes may have been lost in that election," Alvarez notes, "mainly due to problems in voter registration files, long polling place lines, as well as the faulty voting machines." Some transitions have begun, as many states and counties are replacing their old punch-card and lever voting machines with newer technologies. And in the near future, most states will grapple with significant changes in how they register citizens to vote. But these changes are unlikely to be lasting. The transition to Internet voting is already under way in the United States. and elsewhere in the world, says Alvarez. The Department of Defense is expanding its program, initiated during the 2000 election, to provide for absentee balloting for military personnel. The United Kingdom and Switzerland have employed Internet voting in their local elections.

Yet problems remain. There are, as yet, no standards for security--a problem made more difficult by the fact that the vote is secret and "receipt free"--and there is the prospect that the digital divide may create inequities in participation in America.

Alvarez's talk will focus on how much progress has been made in fixing the problems that were discovered following the 2000 presidential election, and then will consider how new information technologies like the Internet can be used to make voting more accessible and secure in the near future.

For over 81 years Caltech has offered the Watson Lecture Series, ever since it was conceived by the late Caltech physicist Earnest Watson as a way to explain science to the local community. The lecture will take place at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium, which is located near Michigan Avenue south of Del Mar Boulevard, on Caltech's campus in Pasadena. Seating is available on a free, no-ticket-required, first-come, first-served basis, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Parking is available in the lots south of Del Mar Boulevard between Wilson and Chester avenues, and in the parking structures at 341 and 405 South Wilson and 370 South Holliston Avenue.