Report: US voting moves past ‘hanging chads’

CALTECH (US) — Better technology has led to improvements in the US voting process, but problems still remain, according to a new report.

Spurred by the debacle of hanging chads and other voting problems during the 2000 presidential election, the Voting Technology Project (VTP) was started by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to bring together researchers from across disciplines to figure out how to improve elections. The VTP issued its first report in 2001.

“Since that report came out and since our project was formed, a lot of progress has been made in improving how American elections are run,” says Michael Alvarez, professor of political science at Caltech and co-director of the VTP.

A mound of chads. (Credit: Marcin Wichary/Wikimedia)

For example, the report found that getting rid of outdated voting machines has caused a drop in the number of votes lost to ballot errors.

To assess how many votes are lost in each election due to voting mistakes, the researchers calculate the number of residual votes—or the difference between the number of votes that are counted for a particular office and the total number of votes cast. If there are no voting errors, there should be no residual votes.

In their first report in 2001, the researchers found that older voting technology—like punch cards—led to a high residual vote rate.

But their new research now shows that the rate has dropped. In particular, Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at MIT and the other co-director of the VTP, and his colleagues found that the total number of residual votes decreased from 2 percent in 2000 to 1 percent in 2006 and 2008, meaning that fewer votes were lost due to voting errors. The drop was greater in states that instituted more modern voting technology.

“As we moved away from punch cards, lever machines, and paper ballots and towards optical scan systems and electronic systems that have voter verification, we have seen the voter residual rate plummet,” Alvarez says. Voter-verification technology gives voters immediate feedback if they make a mistake—by filling in a circle incorrectly, for example—and a chance to correct their error to ensure that their votes are counted.

In addition, the report urges officials to continue and expand election auditing to study the accuracy of registration and voting procedures. For example, after an election, officials can recount ballots to make sure the electronic ballot counters are accurate.

“Post-election ballot auditing is a great idea and states need to continue their efforts to use those election ballot-auditing procedures to increase the amount of confidence and integrity of elections,” Alvarez says.

The researchers also describe concern with the rise of absentee and early voting, since voter verification is much harder to do via mail. Unlike with in-person voting, these methods offer no immediate feedback about whether a ballot was filled out correctly or if it got counted at all. Once you put your ballot in the mailbox, it’s literally out of your hands.

The report also weighs in on voter-identification laws, which have been proposed in many states and subsequently challenged in court. Proponents say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud while opponents argue that there is little evidence that such fraud exists. Moreover, opponents say, voter identification laws make it much more difficult for people without government-issued IDs to vote. But, the report says, technology may resolve the conflict.

“Technology may help ensure voter authentication while alleviating or mitigating the costs that are imposed on voters by laws requiring state-issued identification,” says Jonathan Katz, professor of social sciences and statistics and co-author of the VTP report.

For example, polling places can have access to a database of registered voters that is also linked to the state’s database of DMV photos. A voter’s identification can then be confirmed without them having to carry a photo ID. For voters who do not have an ID, the polling place can be equipped with a camera to take an ID picture immediately. The photo can then be entered into the database to verify identification in future elections.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts supported the work.

Source: Caltech

chat4 Comments

You are free to share this article under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.


  1. jeh

    Of course the makers of the machines are run by conservative Republicans – the very same people who are trying to suppress voting by passing draconian laws in every state. Are they trustworthy? Anybody looked at how easy the machines are to hack?
    If you think Huawei or ZTE are untrustworthy….

  2. rwill

    Hacking the vote….up to 1/4 of all votes are susceptible to being hacked/hijacked….

    Sure, widespread electronic voting would make the process of tallying and processing ballots exponentially easier, but can it ever really be secure? Maybe someday, but certainly not right now, as evidenced by a little experiment in Washington D.C. that ended with everyone’s favorite robo-sociopath Bender Bending Rodriguez being elected as the head of the Washington D.C. school board. Needless to say, there was a little bit of hacking involved.

    Before we go any further, its worth noting that there was hacking involved partially because the Washington D.C. election board was asking for it. Literally. During the election in question, the election board actually invited all comers to try and break into the system as a test of its security. Among others, a team from University of Michigan took a crack at it, and cracked the system wide open.

    In addition to asking for it literally, the election board was also “asking for it” from a security standpoint. During the course of the hack, the team, comprised of Professor Alex Halderman, and two graduate student sidekicks, found themselves having to break into the voting system’s terminal servers. Since the password and logon were both “admin,” it proved to be quite easy. They also found that hijacking the voting system’s surveillance cameras for their own purposes was equally trivial.

    By exploiting a number of equally egregious security flaws, the team was able to get inside the system, block it off from other attackers, control the ballots, modify them to include SkyNet and Bender, and accomplish this all while remaining completely covert. As a victory dance of sorts, the team programmed the machines to play the University of Michigan fight song. Authorities remained unaware of the successful hack until a tester — who had just ruled the system “secure,” I might add — suggested they lose the music because it was annoying.

  3. Brian Pearson

    What I wonder about are instances where the total percentage of votes surpassed 100%. And that was only one example. Other times, there were different kinds of paper used which caused problems. I would add more to the list but I don’t want to have to dig through the problems I found, all over again.

  4. Roy Frieden

    I am writing a book on complexity in nature. May I use your first picture, in “Futurity”, Oct. 18, 2012? This shows a red voting machine lever. It was posted by Marcus Woo, of Caltech, in ‘Society and Culture.’

    If I have your permission, how would you like to be credited in the caption?

    Many thanks,

    B. Roy Frieden

We respect your privacy.