Caltech, MIT announce voting technology initiative

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Two of the nation's leading scientific institutions said Thursday they will work together to develop an easy, reliable and inexpensive voting system for the nation.

The goal: technology that will make sure nothing like the 2000 presidential election ever happens again.

''To a large extent, the problem that the country has faced these last few weeks has a technological solution,'' said Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is joining the California Institute of Technology in the venture.

That solution is isn't clear yet, though. Experts from the schools said they will examine existing technology before trying to develop improvements.

The plan began to take shape a few weeks after Election Day, when Caltech President David Baltimore called Vest to gripe about the confusion in Florida.

They agreed something had to be done, and that their schools have the resources to do it. Within a few weeks, they organized political scientists, engineers and design experts to study the voting process and come up with a way to improve it.

''It is embarrassing to America when technology fails and it puts democracy to such a test as we have seen in the last month,'' Baltimore said Thursday from Pasadena, Calif., during a joint-video news conference with Vest to announce the venture.

Whether they eventually produce a high-tech voting device or simply a ballot that is easier for both people and machines to read, the experts said Thursday they'd begin by looking, for the next six months, at the existing technology.

''We are going to consider technology from the oldest to the newest, from paper ballots, like people used in the 19th century, to Internet voting,'' said MIT political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere.

And should the professors find that the older technology in fact works better, they'll report that faithfully, Ansolabehere said.

But Vest said he thought it ''highly unlikely'' that better technology couldn't help, at which point the two universities would begin stage two: developing the technology to make voting work better.

''It's hard for me to believe we can't come up with a more reliable technology that's easy to use,'' Vest said.

Major changes, experts at both schools said, could cost billions of dollars to install and maintain. Some members of Congress have already proposed more funding for elections, although Baltimore and Vest said they had not yet been in contact with anyone in the government about the project.

''In the wake of the national turmoil of recent weeks, the MIT-Caltech initiative applies technical expertise to address mechanical flaws in the voting process, which would go a long way toward restoring public confidence in the integrity of the overall electoral system,'' said U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., who has joined U.S. Rep. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., to draft legislation to review voting irregularities and to provide funds for upgrading voting technology.

Unlike many countries, the United States has no uniform ballot - a fact many blame for the confusion in Florida. In some precincts, voters will find relatively sophisticated electronic machines, while in others hand ballots are still used.

Ansolabehere said no machine would ever be absolutely perfect, but improvements are certainly possible. ''Some of the numbers coming out of Florida are pretty disturbing,'' he said.

Many Americans would not have expected that simply counting the votes would have required the best and brightest from Caltech and MIT.

''It seems to me simply a problem that we have never, at least in this country, tackled in a serious way,'' Vest said. ''We're simply at a moment in our history where this truly bizarre circumstance of this last presidential election has put this on the front burner.''


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