Manifest Technology Blog
| DVI Tech
| Site Map
TECHNOLOGY & SOCIETY ARTICLES
| PC Video
| Web Media
| DVD & CD
| Portable Media
| Digital Imaging
| Wireless Media
| Home Media
| Tech & Society
Technology & Society:
| Technology & Society Articles
| PC Technology References
Technology and the Polls:
Why Computers Shouldn't Count Votes
(Rebecca Mercuri, 11/2000)
by Douglas Dixon
The recent Presidential election has demonstrated the
difficulties of carrying out the fundamental democratic process of counting
votes. Even though ballot problems like those in Florida were already well
known, tabulating election results continues to be a clumsy process fraught with
So it might seem that electronic or even an Internet-based
voting might be a better solution, replacing slow manual processes with
instantaneous computer results. On the other hand, recent experience suggests
that relying on computer software can be problematical, from the recent break-in
at Microsoft, to the rash of global E-mail viruses, and even the hacking of
"People see Internet voting as a solution," says
Rebecca Mercuri, an expert on voting security. "It's chilling. It will
compromise voter anonymity and auditability. It would solve the recount problem,
because we won't be able to do a recount."
Dr. Mercuri has written extensively and provided expert
testimony and commentary on many electronic voting systems. Her Ph.D. thesis
from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering, "Electronic
Vote Tabulation Checks & Balances," examines electronic voting within
the larger context of computer security. Mercuri is a member of the computer
science faculty at Bryn Mawr College, and is President of Notable Software, Inc.
She is quickly becoming a national media expert on the current
Presidential election. She has been interviewed by the Associated Press,
Newhouse news service, and Knight-Ritter, and on WHYY radio in Philadelphia. Her
Sarnoff talk will review lessons from the recent Presidential election, prior
contested Florida elections, and California's Internet Voting Task Force
proposal. It will then present some of the technical issues and challenges for
secure electronic voting.
Discussing the Presidential results in Florida, Mercuri
focuses on the accuracy of the machines and the statistics of the results.
"Every vote counts," she says, "but only within the margin of
error, depending on the equipment, and how the precinct has set it up. If there
are errors, which there always are, you want them to be evenly
distributed." Error rates of up to 2 to 5 percent can be considered
acceptable, as they are in other applications such as standardized testing. But
statistically, there will be some "outliers," data that falls out of
the normal range.
In Florida, the vote for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County is
clearly such an outlier, significantly out of the range of the voting patterns
across the state, and even in the neighboring counties. Analyses at various
universities posted on the Web suggest that while Buchanan received 3,407 votes
in Palm Beach County, the data from other countries suggest a more likely number
would be under 1,000, even as low as 600 (see madison.hss.cmu.edu).
"In Florida, they are trying to demonstrate that the
outlier data was caused by the ballot," says Mercuri, "but it is very
difficult to prove causality." The ballot has two rows of names down the
sides, and arrows pointing to alternating holes down the middle. "The
layout design, the butterfly ballot, is supposedly illegal," says Mercuri.
"It's been known for long time to cause problems, and creates confusion in
voters. When right-handed people punch out the holes using a stylus, they are
holding their hand over the right side of the ballot and it covers up the little
Even if the voters thought they correctly punched out the
desired hole for their candidate, other problems can occur when votes are
tabulated on automated equipment. "A card reader may have a one in one
million error rate," she says, "but that says nothing about the cards
themselves." The ballot cards have perforated holes for voters to punch out
with a stylus, but sometimes the paper does not fully detach, and remains as
"chad," hanging down from the card, or even bends back to recover the
hole. "The manufacturer says you need to run the cards through four times
so the hanging chad drops out," says Mercuri.
In another 19,000 cases in Florida, ballots were rejected
because the card was read as double-punched. "But that does not mean that
people punched out two holes," says Mercuri. "The ballots are
pre-perforated, and then you slide the card in under the faceplate. If the cards
are misaligned when they slide in, they may not go in all the way; you could
punch in between both holes and possibly have both come out." The machines
are tested with a (well-used) test batch of cards, a week before the election,
and again the day of the election, to check both that valid cards are counted
and that invalid cards are rejected. But for the actual vote, "nobody
analyzed the rejections, even though the misalignment problem is known."
Many of the issues with computer vote-counting systems were
addressed in a comprehensive 1988 study by Roy Saltman, under the National
Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (www.nist.gov).
His 130-page report, "Accuracy, integrity and security in computerized
vote-tallying," reviewed problems with vote-tallying around the country,
and provided specific recommendations for voting controls, operational
procedures, and balloting hardware and software systems.
"The NIST report found various problems with
balloting," says Mercuri, "and focused on the punch cards because of
problems with hanging chad. The more you move to electronic voting, the more
hidden the tabulation, you remove checks and balances, the visual checking by
the voter. And the more we remove them, the fewer people we are turning the
election over to."
As we saw in Florida, says Mercuri, "exit polls are
checks and balances, too; they gave the state of Florida to Gore. You assume the
people are not lying, and within its own margin for error, the exit polls
capture the intention of the voters. You can statistically measure the outcome
of the election."
After all, she says, "an election is just a sophisticated
kind of polling. People go to a 'polling' place, come in and express their
"The Constitution says Congress oversees the federal
elections," says Mercuri, "but the federal government has delegated it
to the states: how the voting is administered, what machines they use, how the
machines are set up, how the votes are tabulated, and how they are checked. And
some states yield it to municipalities, like New York City."
But is electronic voting a better answer?
Proponents of electronic and web-based voting systems are
quick to criticize punch cards and lever machines as being slow and antiquated.
But even punch-card and mark-sense (like SAT tests) ballots are counted
automatically using mechanical and optical readers. And new DRE (Direct
Recording Electronic) machines bypass physical ballots or mechanical interlocks
entirely to carry out the entire process of recording and tallying votes in
Michael Shamos, a long-time voting examiner and a computer
science professor and co-director of the E-Commerce Institiute at
Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, proposed a set of fundamental requirements for
electronic voting machines in a paper at the 1993 conference on Computers,
Freedom & Privacy (www.cpsr.org/conferences/cfp93/shamos.html). Shamos, a
1968 Princeton University alumnus, proposed these requirements in the form of
commandments listed in decreasing order of importance.
The "Shamos commandments:"
I. Thou shalt keep each voter's choices an inviolable secret.
II. Thou shalt allow each eligible voter to vote only once, and only for those
offices for which the voter is authorized to cast a vote. III. Thou shalt not
permit tampering with thy voting system, nor the exchange of gold for votes. IV.
Thou shalt report all votes accurately. V. Thy voting system shall remain
operable throughout each election. VI. Thou shalt keep an audit trail to detect
sins against Commandments II-IV, but thy audit trail shall not violate
"Note that having every vote counted is number four on
his list," says Mercuri. "Number one is that the privacy of the ballot
must be maintained. Paying for votes is higher. As we are seeing with vote
auction websites, using the Internet involves giving up the checks and balances
when people come to the polling place."
"All of the voting systems have inherent flaws, some
worse than others," Mercuri says. "You could improve all the systems.
The majority of voters are unaware of this. Examiners and election officials are
aware of this hierarchy, and inherent problems in voting systems."
Mercuri knows the voting booths inside out. "I've worked
the polls for five years in New Jersey," she says, "and for a decade
before in Pennsylvania. The poll workers have been there for years, and come to
know who the voters are; it's their neighbors."
On the Internet, it's not only easier to sell your vote, but
also to coerce your vote. "It's no longer done in a private place,"
she says. "Imagine voting at a community kiosk with people standing behind
you, or in a religious place, or at home in a domestic abuse situation, or at
work, with your vote passing through your employer's firewall."
"If we loosen up the controls," she says, "we
lose the integrity of the way we vote: privacy, voting for a single candidate,
and verification that the ballot is correct."
"If you have a paper ballot, the evidence is there, you
can see the intention of the voter," she says. "With a mechanical
system you can see your vote, and confirm that you have only voted once, for one
candidate. Vendors of electronic voting systems say the audit trail is in the
machine. But if you want a full trail, you need to register every vote, and you
Mercuri - Voting
Mercuri first became involved with the social issues of
electronic voting in 1989, when she was serving as a volunteer worker in a local
election in Bucks County. "One county commissioner mentioned new electronic
machines being purchased for Bucks County, and I became concerned," she
Her then husband referred her to a long article by Ronnie
Dugger in the November 1988 issue of the New Yorker magazine on the dangers of
computerized voting. That lead her to the Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility (C.P.S.R.) in Washington, D.C., and to the Election Watch group.
As a result of help from those organizations, "we were able to convince
Bucks County not to use the electronic machines," says Mercuri.
From this work and her contacts, Mercuri began to write
position papers and regularly testify on voting security. Her main project was
during the prolonged controversy over New York City's $60 million procurement of
electronic machines. "I gave expert testimony extensively on the New York
City procurement process through most of the '90s," she says. Mercuri also
has spoken and written on voting at Computer Security and Privacy conferences
and for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). She has consulted and
testified in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Hawaii -- and Florida, where she served as a
consultant in a 1993 court case involving an election where enough procedural
anomalies were found in the tallying equipment to require a manual recount.
Out of her work on electronic voting, Mercuri also developed a
business in computer forensics, reconstructing and developing computer-related
evidence. "In the early 1990's there were not many people who had done
sworn testimony about computer systems," she says. "So I started
advertising as an expert witness for lawyers."
She has worked as an expert witnesses for civil, criminal and
municipal investigations, including examination of evidence, development of case
briefs, presentation of depositions, trial and hearing statements, and other
related legal matters involving computer technology. "The evidence
prevails," she says. "The vast majority of cases did not go to trial,
they were settled out of court. The evidence that I turned up often assisted in
the process." Notable Software also provides expert witness services for
Background - Arts & Sciences
Mercuri has a rich background, combining computers and music,
science and the arts, business and education. "I've always been interested
in arts and science," she says. "It was an early split in my brain; I
am ambidextrous, so it's a left brain - right brain kind of thing, the math side
and the arts side."
The conflict between music and computers continued into
college, where Mercuri ended up earning degrees in both computer science and
guitar concurrently at two different colleges. She started at Penn State in
Abington working on a degree in music education, but kept taking computer
courses. "I eventually change my major to computer science," she says,
"even though I had to take all those calculus courses."
She did her first computer music program when a computer
professor suggested she do a class project on music. She wrote a program to do
musical exercises in four-part harmony, where you start with a chord and melody,
and develop the four-part harmony according to mathematical rules. "I
followed the rules, but it still sounded bad," she says. "It turned
out other people were doing the same kind of project, and discovered that
musicians impose another 40 to 50 rules intuitively, rules that had never been
Mercuri graduated from Penn State in 1979 with a bachelor of
science in Computer Science, after also earning a bachelor's in Classical Guitar
in 1977 from the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (now the University
of the Performing Arts). "At one point, I took 30 credits between the two
schools, or a year's worth in one semester," she says, "which was a
lot like when I was finishing my Ph.D. thesis."
Sarnoff - Notable Software
After college, Mercuri joined the then David Sarnoff Research
Center in Princeton to work on computer music on a home computer project. She
did engineering and programming on the RCA VideoDisc system. While there, she
also co-developed several educational music games for the Apple II computer.
After the home computer project died, RCA was no longer interested in the
programs, so in 1981 Mercuri set up her company, Notable Software, to distribute
them. "The lawyers let us take over the programs," she says, "and
we set up our own company to sell them while we were still at Sarnoff."
The Notable Software educational software was designed to be
played by persons having little or no musical training, at least at the easier
levels. In "Note Trespassing," you match and learn notes as they are
displayed on the staff and played with the correct pitch. In "Musical
Match-Up," you are familiarized with some of the basic concepts of music
theory, including major, minor, augmented, diminished and seventh chords.
Notable Software then extended the line with geography / history games,
including "Flags of the World" and "Geography Scramble."
Mercuri left Sarnoff in 1985 to work as an independent
consultant with Notable Software. She also expanded into training. "I
started to get calls from schools about using computers in schools," she
says. "So I set up educational computer programming seminars, to help teach
the teachers." She also worked with recording studios to help them with
computer music equipment.
Her training business expanded. "I was starting to teach
more," she says, "developing course materials, helping people to learn
how to program." In 1987 Mercuri created a training division, Knowledge
Concepts, to offer courses in computer basics, productivity tools, programming
languages, and software engineering. "I was getting big contracts for
training," she says, "through the Chamber of Commerce of Greater
Philadelphia, and with the United States Army and the Federal Aviation
But consulting is often a game of credentials. "I have
always had leanings toward education," she says, "but I didn't have a
master's degree, and I really needed it as an independent consultant." She
enrolled at Drexel University and earned a Master of Science in Computer Science
As Mercuri worked through graduate school, she began teaching
as an adjunct professor for area colleges. Keeping with her ambidextrous
background, she taught subjects including computer science at Penn State,
statistics and music theory at Immaculata College, and music at Eastern College.
"But I wanted to go the full route," she says, "and needed to get
my Ph.D." So she enrolled in the doctoral program at the School of
Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania, earning her Master of Science in
Engineering along the way in 1990.
As a doctoral candidate, she held full-time teaching positions
at several local colleges, including Delaware Valley College, Mercer County
College, Drexel University, and The College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton
State College). She has taught courses in business, computer science,
engineering, mathematics, and ethics and social values. This fall, she joined
the computer science faculty at Bryn Mawr College. And she finally completed her
thesis, and successfully defended it in October.
Arts and Music Therapy
As Mercuri worked on her degrees and taught in local collages,
she continued to combine her engineering background with her interest in the
arts. With the Music Therapy department at Immaculata College, she developed and
explored the use of computer-generated virtual environments in a therapeutic
context. "Using computers for music therapy was a rather novel idea in the
late 1980s," she says, "now it's almost commonplace."
"Music therapy is a long-standing field, she says,
"which became official with its success in treating World War II cases of
shell shock. Cyberspace added the ability to repeat experiences, and record
them." In one system where people were gesturing in response to music,
"we discovered that the way people's play with the depended on their
diagnosis of mania versus depression," she says. "The system could be
used as independent support for the diagnosis."
This work was presented at international Music Therapy and
Computer Graphics conferences. It also resulted in the creation of various
museum exhibits, featured at the Franklin Institute Science Museum
(Philadelphia, PA), the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY), and
the Strong Museum (Rochester, NY).
Notable Software also developed a "Benbot"
exhibition for the Franklin Institute in 1997 as part of the Futures Center
Cyberzone exhibit. This Internet chatbot of Benjamin Franklin has an interactive
conversation interface that features over 800 Franklin quotations (moonmilk.com/ben).
Women in Computing
Mercuri has had a longtime involvement in promoting women in
the field, "and Computer Science is a great field," she says. She
recently received an award from Penn State for ten years of work on the Math
Options program. This project is targeted at seventh grade girls, who are
brought to college campuses to attend a day of activities, led by women who have
chosen math-related careers. There, the girls communicate one-on-one with the
women about their professions and lives, and follow-up sessions and mentoring
relationships are also provided. The project serves many hundreds of girls each
Mercuri wanted to extend this concept to a computer camp for
girls. While local colleges have offered summer computer camps entitled
"Computer Hackers Workshop" focused on developing computer games, few
if any girls have attended. Using the "if you build it, they will
come" philosophy, Mercuri drew on her experience teaching Web page design
to develop a camp program with the goal that each participant develop her own
original web page, from scratch, around a personally-chosen theme. The campers
learn computer fundamentals such as word processing and basic understanding of
hardware components as part of individual creative exploration and development
of Web pages.
This "Computer Camp -- For Girls Only!" concept was
a great match to the New Jersey Institute of Technology's (NJIT) Senior FEMME
program, which was expanding to NJIT's Burlington County campus. In 1999,
Mercuri worked with a group of a dozen ninth and tenth graders, and all
successfully developed personal Web pages. In 2000, the program expanded to
include 25 girls in a wider age range, from seventh to ninth grade.
Mercuri also is active in local and regional computing,
engineering, and arts groups, including the Princeton Chapters of the ACM /
IEEE, the Audio Engineering Society, the Delaware Valley Chapter of the
Acoustical Society of America, and the annual Small Computers in the Arts
Network (SCAN) program in Philadelphia. She has also been elected to membership
in the New York Academy of Sciences.
Mercuri's thesis topic on Electronic Voting might have seemed
fairly academic one month ago, but not now. "All voting systems are
flawed," says Mercuri, "this is not new knowledge. And some are more
flawed than others. The flaws we need to look at are the ones that violate the
Shamos commandants." The two major concerns are privacy and recount, is the
person's vote private, and can the count be audited. "But privacy and
auditability conflict," she says, "you can't have them simultaneously
in a computer system. We have an inner conflict. We need to retain the checks
and balances and give them back to humans."
But can't technology ultimately be the solution, rather than
part of the problem? Michael Shamos seems more optimistic than Mercuri.
"Direct recording electronic systems are fundamentally safer than any
system in which humans get to put their fingers on the ballots. You remove the
county official from the process." And with ballots such as those in
Florida, it's virtually impossible to obtain the exact same count twice, says
Shamos. The act of passing them through so many human hands inevitably causes
some shifts in those infamous shreds of evidence -- the chads.
"When properly implemented," Shamos says, electronic
systems "can have real time accountability. But this will take years and
years to implement," he concedes. Such all-digital systems probably won't
be cheap. "One thing the public doesn't like is spending a lot of money on
elections," Shamos notes.
And the system will be tested by increasing media pressures to
deliver results quicker and quicker. "The technology has been skewed toward
speed rather than voter convenience or accuracy," says Shamos. "We get
away with it because most elections aren't close."
Adds Mercuri, "There's a strong drive to get the results
out by the 11 o'clock news. But we want to still be able to have a recount. We
need to find the true will of the voter." But without a mechanical or paper
system, the voter can't see the ballot recorded as intended. "For
example," she suggests, "we could add a paper output as an independent
check and verification, and then we could have a better system. It would have
speed and expediency for the first result, but also save the possibility of a
"This is not unique to voting," says Mercuri,
"there are a variety of other areas where the issue arises as well, such as
private banking, and AIDS test reporting. My thesis is really about computer
security, and voting machines is just a test case of it."
Electronic Voting / Rebecca Mercuri
Notable Software, Inc. / Rebecca Mercuri