Optical scanning best for ballots

High technology does not offer the best answer to the problem of inaccurate voting machines, experts from two leading technology universities have concluded.

Internet voting and other forms of electronic voting technology do not promise substantially better results than the trouble-plagued mechanical voting machines in use today. But a medium-level technology—optical scanning — does, say researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.

Voting machine shortcomings were exposed by the punch card fiasco in Florida during last fall's presidential election. Tens of thousands of punch card ballots were not counted or were counted incorrectly by voting machines, touching off a series of recounts that went on for 36 days until the Supreme Court intervened and declared George W. Bush the election winner.

Nationwide, as many as 6 million votes were "lost" because voting machines failed to count them, registrars failed to properly register voters, or election workers improperly turned voters away from polling places, the researchers said.

In the wake of the 2000 balloting debacle, the two universities appointed a team of computer scientists, mechanical engineers and political scientists to study American voting systems.

They concluded that optical scanners make the most accurate voting machines. In use for decades, optical scanners count votes by reading ballots on which voters have filled in circles indicating their choice of candidate.

"Optical scanning has the best track record of all equipment types currently in use," the Caltech and MIT team said in a report July 16. "We recommend replacing punch cards, lever machines, and older electronic machines with optical scanned ballot systems."

The team said some types of electronic voting machines would be acceptable if they can be proven to perform as well as optical scanners. But overall, electronic voting machines perform poorly. They had "the second highest rate of unmarked, uncounted and spoiled ballots in presidential, Senate and governor elections over the last 12 years," the researchers found. Only punch card and lever machines were worse. Hand-counted paper ballots had a higher degree of accuracy.

There is an important role for computers in the polling place, however. The voting team said "polling places should be equipped with laptops to provide instant access to all county or state voter registration information. This will help alleviate the problem of eligible voters being turned away on Election Day."

The Caltech and MIT team concluded that the federal government should establish and fund an election technology research program to test voting machines and study ballot design, voting security and voting accessibility for people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission is seeking public comment on proposed revisions to its 11-year-old standards for computerized voting systems.

Among its revisions, the FEC noted that the security remains an unsolved problem for Internet voting. The FEC also calls for better audit trails so the accuracy of votes can be verified when there are recounts. The commission also calls for improved accessibility for people with disabilities.

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