A University of Iowa professor of computer science just landed an 800-thousand-dollar grant to study the use of electronic voting machines. Professor Douglas Johnson says it’s not the first technology to be used in casting votes, and says often the machine gets a bad rap. In fact he says back in the 1930s there was a lot of work done on election administration in the U.S. by a man who went on to invent the “Vote-a-Matic” voting machine. The same man wrote a book commenting that there’s no area of public service in the country that’s worse administered than elections. Professor Johnson says many of those complaints about the quality of election administration are just as true today. Those old machines are still in use in many precincts. The computer-science specialist says a lot of aspects of that old Vote-a-Matic are good — but nobody ever correctly conducted a recount on them, because nobody had ever studied the way the machine fails…under after the election of 2000 with its flawed ballots in Florida. “You have to understand how a system fails before you really understand how to deal with those failures,” Johnson says. He says a lot of election officials don’t want to talk about failures in the system, and he can understand why. Any time you admit elections aren’t being done perfectly, you reduce public confidence, and Johnson says that’s nothing less than a threat to democracy. “If people aren’t confident that their ballots will be counted, they won’t vote, and if a lot of people don’t vote, the democracy becomes more and more undemocratic.” The five-year study will combine the work of ten of the nation’s leading experts in electronic voting, computer security, public-policy issues and human-computer inteaction. They’ll use a total of 7 and-a-half million dollars from the National Science Foundation to do the study.
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