Unisys, Dell, MS Team up for Voting Systems

ByErica D. Rowell

Jan. 11, 2001 -- In the wake of the election debacle in Florida, more technology companies are stepping up to the plate to offer their solutions as the modern cure-all to voting ills.

Today Unisys Corp. announced it’s teaming up with the No. 2 PC manufacturer Dell Computer Corp. and software behemoth Microsoft Corp. to build customized electronic voting systems. Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys will integrate the end-to-end systems, from voter registration to the voting process through to tabulation and reporting. Dell will build the hardware, Microsoft will tackle the software, and Unisys will bring it all together.

“Our intent here is to bring the best of breed solutions to market,” said Unisys spokesman Kevin Curry. “And obviously as time goes by and technology evolves, we will bring solutions to market to keep up with changes.”

The move is not a first for Unisys, which has dabbled in electronic voting systems in Brazil, Rome and Costa Rica, says Curry. Closer to home, Minnesota state caucuses registered their votes with the secretary of state using Unisys equipment in March 2000.

“With our integration capabilities and track record — we’ve done quite a bit of these implementations internationally,” says Curry, “we believe we have the right team to bring applications to market today and in the future.”

Following Some Trends

Today’s announcement comes about a month after CalTech and MIT announced its Voting Technology Initiative, a joint effort to find and create a uniform system for voting by assessing current problems and recommending technology solutions. In November, Compaq Computer Corp. and Cisco Systems announced investments in Voterhere.net, and other high-tech solutions are on the horizon, if not already in place.

Riverside County in Calif. pioneered a computerized voting system for ballot casting last November. Developed by Hayward, Calif.-based Sequoia Voting Systems, the system fared well, according to Mischelle Townsend, the county’s registrar of voters, who is convinced this is a wave of the future grounded in a solid if short history.

“The technology has been in existence for 10 years — so it’s been proven and tested,” said Townsend.

Electronic systems offer a host of solutions to some of the problems that plagued Florida in the presidential elections — from preventing overvotes to recognizing only those undervotes that were purposeful. But as more companies race to build the best systems, it’s unclear from this early point who will become the established winner, or at least leader.

Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting Democracy, a nonprofit organization that studies how voting systems affect participation, representation and governance, says that’s not important; the competition is. “Our take on this latest initiative is the more players in this field, the better.”

Wave Bye to Chad

Problems from the punchcards and the now infamous hanging chads in Florida to the lever machines which in some areas of New York simply broke down have rekindled voting reform efforts, which involve a wide array of policy changes as well as technological ones.

While it’s still early in the research process, Thomas Palfrey, professor of economics and political science at CalTech, says the move to more accurate voting systems before now has been stymied by a couple of non-technological hurdles.

“Two reasons that have been real impediments to getting a good system in place:the lack of any sort of uniformity [in equipment] across the country,” says Palfrey. “The other thing that is related to that is the cost.”

American University government professor Rick Semiatin agrees. He says at least statewide “you should have one uniform system. That really mitigates your problems so you’re not dealing with apples and oranges when counting votes from different types of ballots.”

Richie recognizes the ceiling on the market but says it’s a good reason for government to step in.

“It’s sort of a civic duty — using good tech should make our democracy better,” says Richie. “An important role for the [federal] government to play is to put money out there to do this.”

Avoiding GlitchesPalfrey and other experts who follow voting trends say newer machines and software can offer a more reliable, accurate method for elections, but there are technology pitfalls that must be addressed first.

Back-ups or redundancies must be built into the systems, say Curry and other experts in the voting technology field, but hardware backups might not be enough. With system crashes, data even in two separate locations can be lost — it may not be probable, but it is possible.

While problems can result from pretty much any one of the multiple voting systems out there today, none typically produces the “very big mistake” of a system crash or loss of data, says Palfrey.

“A lot of what we’re looking at … is to ensure we have redundancy with power, memory, recording of votes built into these systems so if we were to have a problem nothing would be lost,” says Curry, who adds that an audit paper trail is built into most of the environments as well.

Paper receipts for machine transactions are a common experience these days when getting money. And if people can rely on automatic teller machines, which handle hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, says Palfrey, automated voting machines aren’t too far behind.

“When you’re going to go to machines that have the feel of ATMs, [people] will be comfortable with the vote,” says Palfrey.

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