The Chronicle of Higher Education



Solutions to Election Tampering Remain Elusive, Scholars Say



Tuesday, September 4, 2007

In 1896, The New York Times reported that a Belgian inventor had created what he called the "perfected voting machine" -- "a device for registering votes without possibility of fraud." One hundred and eleven years later, perfection seems elusive: The world is still searching for technological and organizational systems that can prevent election tampering.

At a panel discussion here on Saturday during the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, five scholars offered their takes on the problem, but they did not always agree about which dangers are most serious or how they should be solved.

Andrew W. Appel, a professor of computer science at Princeton University, said that it was theoretically possible to tamper with the software of electronic voting machines -- and to do so in a way that would be virtually impossible to detect. (Mr. Appel and his colleagues have completed a few studies on that topic. And in July a team of scholars in the University of California system released a major review of election security that was commissioned by California's secretary of state.)

The danger has been widely recognized for several years, Mr. Appel said. "And yet 87 percent of the votes cast in the 2006 national election," he said, "were counted by computers -- either by optical-scanning machines or by directly-recording electronic machines. And there are very few systematic audits."

The consensus among computer scientists, Mr. Appel said, is that the optimal election system would involve optical-scanning machines that store voters' paper ballots. Officials could routinely audit elections by conducting hand recounts in a random sample of precincts. If those recounts revealed discrepancies, then the officials could order a hand recount of the entire election, and they could search for signs of tampering in the machines' software.

"That is far from being a magic bullet," Mr. Appel said, "because hand recounts are also potentially subject to fraud." Nonetheless, he said, the system would probably offer the best combination of speed and security.

Two scholars in Saturday's discussion described potential new techniques for detecting vote rigging. Walter R. Mebane Jr., a professor of statistics and political science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has been analyzing precinct-level election results through the lens of Benford's Law, a mathematical principle that describes how frequently particular digits should appear in statistical tables of real-world data.

In a recent paper, "Election Forensics: Vote Counts and Benford's Law," Mr. Mebane suggested that in precincts with voting irregularities, the digits in the election returns are not distributed in the way that Benford's Law says they should be. He has detected such anomalies in returns from Ohio's 2004 election, Mexico's 2006 election, and Bangladesh's 2001 election.

If this theory pans out, then statisticians could routinely audit election returns for violations of Benford's Law. But Mr. Mebane cautioned that the idea needs further testing and development, and he stressed that certain kinds of election tampering would not be revealed by his technique.

Susan D. Hyde, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, proposed that when international observers monitor an election, they should sometimes use random assignment to choose which voting sites they monitor, rather than concentrating on known trouble spots. (Ms. Hyde designed such an experiment for the monitoring of Indonesia's 2004 election.)

True random assignment, Ms. Hyde said, can help reveal whether there is an "observer effect." That is, does the presence of monitors deter malefactors from ballot stuffing or voter intimidation? If the election returns in a randomly selected monitored precinct are significantly different from the returns in similar nearby nonmonitored precincts, that will be a sign of possible wrongdoing.

Tracy A. Campbell, an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, sketched the story of the decades-long effort to clean up a corrupt electoral system in Louisville, Ky., in the late 19th century. He stressed that Louisville's corruption involved graft and job patronage that enveloped the entire city. "Election fraud involves more than just political hacks or party officials," said Mr. Campbell, who is the author of Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, An American Political Tradition, 1742-2004 (Carroll & Graf, 2005). "In many instances, voters were and are willing accomplices."

A dissenting note was offered by J. Morgan Kousser, a professor of history and social science at the California Institute of Technology. Mr. Kousser agreed with his fellow panelists' skepticism about election systems -- but he warned that the public should be equally skeptical of movements for election "reform."

"There is a great American tradition of using allegations of fraud to justify disfranchising people," said Mr. Kousser, who is the author of The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (Yale University Press, 1974). He said he feared that some potential voters would be driven away by proposed new state-level requirements for photo identification.

More broadly, Mr. Kousser suggested that scholars and public advocates have been too concerned with "technical" elements of election reform. State governments should spend more money on training poll workers and less money on buying new machines, he argued.

"We should pay more attention than we have been to nontechnical factors," he said. "We need to keep our eye on protecting the fundamental right to vote."

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Copyright 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher Education