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Assistant professor will analyze election
results at UConn voter research center
Oct. 12, 2012
Suzanne Mello Stark, assistant professor of computer studies at the Community College of Rhode Island wanted to know: How come Americans can’t count?
Not that individual Americans generally have a problem with the “Sesame Street” skill of keeping track of numbers – Mello Stark was interested in voter counts – specifically the mess of over-votes, no-votes, rejected votes and so-called hanging chads that was the 2000 American presidential election.
“Because of 2000 I started to wonder, ‘How come we can’t count?’ We can land a rover on Mars and do all these amazing things but we can’t count,” Mello Stark said.
She will have a chance to delve into her studies on this topic as never before, taking a sabbatical from CCRI this academic year to work at the Voting Technology Research (VoTeR) Center at the University of Connecticut. She will analyze the November election at one of the only election research centers in the country, scrutinize voting technology and continue her own research on improving ways to verify an accurate vote count and a fair election.
The VoTeR Center was commissioned by Connecticut’s secretary of state in 2006 and is funded by the state of Connecticut as well as federal money made available by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, passed to reform electoral practice in the wake of the 2000 election. The VoTeR Center analyzes electoral results only from Connecticut’s voting districts but its research on voting technology can have national implications. If there is another problem in 2012 similar to the one in 2000, the VoTeR Center will likely be called upon to help.
Alexander Shvartsman, professor of computer science and engineering at UConn and director of the VoTeR Center, explained the importance of studying voting technology: “Most states rely on the vendors [of voting equipment] to provide the technical expertise … but there is a mild conflict of interest because the vendor is interested in selling the equipment,” he said. “The states should be interested in independently investigating that equipment.”
The VoTeR Center is responsible for this independent examination and also conducts routine audits of random Connecticut voting districts to ensure that elections are proceeding smoothly. In the coming year, it will work on an electronic system sponsored by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission that will make manual recounts of close elections much easier.
Shvartsman said Mello Stark was chosen after an introduction from the chairwoman of the computer science department at the University of Rhode Island. “We were very pleased with her qualifications and we look forward to having her on board,” he said, adding that he hopes Mello Stark’s experience will foster a technological exchange between CCRI and UConn.
Mello Stark came to the attention of the VoTeR Center mostly because of her 2011 doctoral dissertation at URI that proposed a system of vote verification. This system, called WAVE for “Watch, Audit, Vote, Election,”deals with the surprisingly complex problem of giving individual voters definite confirmation that their votes were counted in the right way. This would be easy enough if voting preferences were public knowledge; voters could simply look up their names and make sure their votes were recorded for the right candidates. However, the United States employs a secret ballot, so there must be a way for voters to do this without anyone being able to tell for whom they voted.
“The reason it’s so complicated is there’s always some info that’s hidden,” Mello Stark said. “You can’t know who someone voted for.”
Mello Stark’s WAVE uses set theory, the mathematical system for dealing with groups. Voting machines would generate a pool of random identifying numbers for each possible candidate and for the option to vote for no one. Each time a voter selects a candidate or abstains from voting in that particular contest, one of the identifying numbers will be removed from the pool and a receipt printed for the voter, who can check that his or her number has been removed, signifying a vote. There would be no database keeping track of what number belongs to what voter.
The system would not be connected to the Internet. Mello Stark learned the importance of this security practice while working at the U.S. Air Force’s underground missile defense bunker Cheyenne Mountain in the 1990s.)
“If you’re connected to the Internet, anyone could get in,” Mello Stark said.
This has, in fact, been a criticism of some of the electronic voting machines first introduced during the 2004 presidential election. In 2006, Princeton University researchers revealed that electronic touch-screen voting machines could be hacked with ease to fraudulently alter election results, though there has not yet been any evidence of significant fraud during an election.
Mello Stark said that many programmers have turned to cryptography, or secret codes, to solve the double problem of voting machine security and voter confidentiality, but she believes the system should be as simple as possible so that the public can understand it.
“Exposing what the [voting] machine is actually doing encourages trust in elections,” she said.
Mello Stark said she looks forward to analyzing the 2012 election and encourages Rhode Islanders to let her know of any voting problems they encounter. She can be reached by email.