Roy Saltman

Michael Shamos

Rebecca Mercuri Bio

Holt Vs. Zimmer

Corrections or additions?

This article by Douglas Dixon was prepared for the November 15,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Technology & the Polls: Rebecca Mercuri

The paper process can be slow and inaccurate, But the digital

replacements also have problems

by Douglas Dixon

It’s happening most dramatically right now in Florida,

with the outcome of the presidential election at stake. And —

in the political equivalent of lightning striking twice — it’s

happening simultaneously in our own backyard, New Jersey’s 12th


District, where the race between Rush Holt and Dick Zimmer is still


The November 7 election has demonstrated the difficulties of carrying

out the fundamental democratic process of counting votes. Even though

ballot problems like those in Florida were already well known,


election results continues to be a clumsy process fraught with human

error. In New Jersey the vote seems more accurate but counting all

the ballots has proved to be a tedious and contentious process.

So it might seem that electronic or even an Internet-based voting

might be a better solution, replacing slow manual processes with


computer results. On the other hand, recent experience suggests that

relying on computer software can be problematical, from the recent

break-in at Microsoft, to the rash of global E-mail viruses, and even

the hacking of candidates’ websites.

"People see Internet voting as a solution," says Rebecca


an expert on voting security. "It’s chilling. It will compromise

voter anonymity and auditability. It would solve the recount problem,

because we won’t be able to do a recount."

Mercuri has written extensively and provided expert testimony and

commentary on many electronic voting systems. Her Ph.D. thesis from

the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering,


Vote Tabulation Checks & Balances," examines electronic voting

within the larger context of computer security.

Mercuri will speak on "Why Computers Shouldn’t Count Votes"

at a meeting of the Princeton chapters of the ACM and IEEE Computer

Society on Thursday, November 16, at 8 p.m. in the Sarnoff Corporation

Auditorium. The meeting is free and open to the public. Call Dennis

Mancl at 908-582-7086, or David Soll at 215-854-3461 (E-mail:,

A resident of Lawrenceville, Mercuri is a member of the computer


faculty at Bryn Mawr College and is quickly becoming a national media

expert on the current Presidential election. She has been interviewed

by the Associated Press, Newhouse news service, and Knight-Ritter,

and on WHYY radio in Philadelphia. Her Sarnoff talk will review


from the recent Presidential election, prior contested Florida


and California’s Internet Voting Task Force proposal. It will then

present some of the technical issues and challenges for secure



Discussing the Presidential results in Florida, Mercuri focuses on

the accuracy of the machines and the statistics of the results.


vote counts," she says, "but only within the margin of error,

depending on the equipment, and how the precinct has set it up. If

there are errors, which there always are, you want them to be evenly

distributed." Error rates of up to 2 to 5 percent can be


acceptable, as they are in other applications such as standardized

testing. But statistically, there will be some "outliers,"

data that falls out of the normal range.

In Florida, the vote for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County is clearly

such an outlier, significantly out of the range of the voting patterns

across the state, and even in the neighboring counties. Analyses at

various universities posted on the Web suggest that while Buchanan

received 3,407 votes in Palm Beach County, the data from other


suggest a more likely number would be under 1,000, even as low as

600 (see

"In Florida, they are trying to demonstrate that the outlier data

was caused by the ballot," says Mercuri, "but it is very


to prove causality." The ballot has two rows of names down the

sides, and arrows pointing to alternating holes down the middle.


layout design, the butterfly ballot, is supposedly illegal," says

Mercuri. "It’s been known for long time to cause problems, and

creates confusion in voters. When right-handed people punch out the

holes using a stylus, they are holding their hand over the right side

of the ballot and it covers up the little arrows."

Even if the voters thought they correctly punched out the desired

hole for their candidate, other problems can occur when votes are

tabulated on automated equipment. "A card reader may have a one

in one million error rate," she says, "but that says nothing about

the cards themselves." The ballot cards have perforated holes

for voters to punch out with a stylus, but sometimes the paper does

not fully detach, and remains as "chad," hanging down from

the card, or even bends back to recover the hole. "The


says you need to run the cards through four times so the hanging chad

drops out," says Mercuri.

In another 19,000 cases in Florida, ballots were rejected because

the card was read as double-punched. "But that does not mean that

people punched out two holes," says Mercuri. "The ballots

are pre-perforated, and then you slide the card in under the


If the cards are misaligned when they slide in, they may not go in

all the way; you could punch in between both holes and possibly have

both come out." The machines are tested with a (well-used) test

batch of cards, a week before the election, and again the day of the

election, to check both that valid cards are counted and that invalid

cards are rejected. But for the actual vote, "nobody analyzed

the rejections, even though the misalignment problem is known."

Top Of Page
Roy Saltman

Many of the issues with computer vote-counting systems were addressed

in a comprehensive 1988 study by Roy Saltman, under the National


of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology

( His 130-page report, "Accuracy, integrity and

security in computerized vote-tallying," reviewed problems with

vote-tallying around the country, and provided specific


for voting controls, operational procedures, and balloting hardware

and software systems.

"The NIST report found various problems with balloting," says

Mercuri, "and focused on the punch cards because of problems with

hanging chad. The more you move to electronic voting, the more hidden

the tabulation, you remove checks and balances, the visual checking

by the voter. And the more we remove them, the fewer people we are

turning the election over to."

As we saw in Florida, says Mercuri, "exit polls are checks and

balances, too; they gave the state of Florida to Gore. You assume

the people are not lying, and within its own margin for error, the

exit polls capture the intention of the voters. You can statistically

measure the outcome of the election."

After all, she says, "an election is just a sophisticated kind

of polling. People go to a `polling’ place, come in and express their


"The Constitution says Congress oversees the federal


says Mercuri, "but the federal government has delegated it to

the states: how the voting is administered, what machines they use,

how the machines are set up, how the votes are tabulated, and how

they are checked. And some states yield it to municipalities, like

New York City."

But is electronic voting a better answer?

Proponents of electronic and web-based voting systems are quick to

criticize punch cards and lever machines as being slow and antiquated.

But even punch-card and mark-sense (like SAT tests) ballots are


automatically using mechanical and optical readers. And new DRE


Recording Electronic) machines bypass physical ballots or mechanical

interlocks entirely to carry out the entire process of recording and

tallying votes in software.

Top Of Page
Michael Shamos

Michael Shamos, a long-time voting examiner and a computer science

professor and co-director of the E-Commerce Institute at


in Pittsburgh, proposed a set of fundamental requirements for


voting machines in a paper at the 1993 conference on Computers,


& Privacy ( Shamos,

a 1968 Princeton University alumnus, proposed these requirements in

the form of commandments listed in decreasing order of importance.

The "Shamos commandments:"

I. Thou shalt keep each voter’s choices an inviolable


II. Thou shalt allow each eligible voter to vote only

once, and only for those offices for which the voter is authorized

to cast a vote.

III. Thou shalt not permit tampering with thy voting


nor the exchange of gold for votes.

IV. Thou shalt report all votes accurately.

V. Thy voting system shall remain operable throughout

each election.

VI. Thou shalt keep an audit trail to detect sins against

Commandments II-IV, but thy audit trail shall not violate Commandment


"Note that having every vote counted is number four on his

list," says Mercuri. "Number one is that the privacy of the

ballot must be maintained. Paying for votes is higher. As we are


with vote auction websites, using the Internet involves giving up

the checks and balances when people come to the polling place."

"All of the voting systems have inherent flaws, some worse than

others," Mercuri says. "You could improve all the systems.

The majority of voters are unaware of this. Examiners and election

officials are aware of this hierarchy, and inherent problems in voting


Mercuri knows the voting booths inside out. "I’ve worked the polls

for five years in New Jersey," she says, "and for a decade

before in Pennsylvania. The poll workers have been there for years,

and come to know who the voters are; it’s their neighbors."

On the Internet, it’s not only easier to sell your vote, but also

to coerce your vote. "It’s no longer done in a private place,"

she says. "Imagine voting at a community kiosk with people


behind you, or in a religious place, or at home in a domestic abuse

situation, or at work, with your vote passing through your employer’s


"If we loosen up the controls," she says, "we lose the

integrity of the way we vote: privacy, voting for a single candidate,

and verification that the ballot is correct."

"If you have a paper ballot, the evidence is there, you can see

the intention of the voter," she says. "With a mechanical

system you can see your vote, and confirm that you have only voted

once, for one candidate. Vendors of electronic voting systems say

the audit trail is in the machine. But if you want a full trail, you

need to register every vote, and you lose anonymity."

Mercuri first became involved with the social issues of electronic

voting in 1989, when she was serving as a volunteer worker in a local

election in Bucks County. "One county commissioner mentioned new

electronic machines being purchased for Bucks County, and I became

concerned," she says.

Her then husband referred her to an article in the New Yorker magazine

on the dangers of computerized voting. That lead her to the Computer

Professionals for Social Responsibility (C.P.S.R.) in Washington,

D.C., and to the Election Watch group. As a result of help from those

organizations, "we were able to convince Bucks County not to use

the electronic machines," says Mercuri.

From this work and her contacts, Mercuri began to write position


and regularly testify on voting security. Her main project was during

the prolonged controversy over New York City’s $60 million procurement

of electronic machines. "I gave expert testimony extensively on

the New York City procurement process through most of the ’90s,"

she says. Mercuri also has spoken and written on voting at Computer

Security and Privacy conferences and for the Association for Computing

Machinery (ACM). She has consulted and testified in Pennsylvania,

Nevada, Hawaii — and Florida, where she served as a consultant

in a 1993 court case involving an election where enough procedural

anomalies were found in the tallying equipment to require a manual


Out of her work on electronic voting, Mercuri also developed a


in computer forensics — reconstructing and developing


evidence. "In the early 1990s there were not many people who had

done sworn testimony about computer systems," she says. "So

I started advertising as an expert witness for lawyers." She has

worked as an expert witnesses for civil, criminal, and municipal


and other related legal matters involving computer technology.


evidence prevails," she says.

Top Of Page
Rebecca Mercuri Bio

Mercuri has a rich background, combining computers and

music, science and the arts, business and education. "I’ve always

been interested in arts and science," she says. "It was an

early split in my brain; I am ambidextrous, so it’s a left brain —

right brain kind of thing, the math side and the arts side. My mom

was more of an arts person; she was an English professor at Drexel.

My dad was a science teacher in the Philadelphia school district,

and he also had a very good singing voice."

"All us kids started music early," she says. "I started

piano at age four, the clarinet in second-grade, and the guitar in

7th grade. My brother Sam grew up to be an audio engineer, and works

as an engineer and programmer. My sister Adrienne went in reverse:

she got a degree in law, and then went back to get a degree in music.

She teaches at Indiana University."

Her parents also encouraged the sciences. "Dad was bringing home

NASA stuff that they were sending to high schools," she says.

"I also did CB radio with my brother. Our dad also got us


sets, and we did our own experiments after going through the ones

in the book. We kept needing to move around the furniture in my


room to hide the mishaps on his wallpaper."

But this background still did not mean that high school was easy for

Mercuri. At Abington High School near Philadelphia, she had "a

lot of difficulty with math. I was wired differently, and I had


until graduate school when you could do math your own way. At one

point I was flunking 11th grade math, but I was in the advanced math

class, doing trigonometry. But all my free periods I was programming

Wang desktop calculators. These machines had card readers, and you

program them by punching holes out. Each card could hold only 80


and most machines could only read one card."

The conflict between music and computers continued into college, where

Mercuri ended up earning degrees in both computer science and guitar

concurrently at two different colleges. She started at Penn State

in Abington working on a degree in music education, but kept taking

computer courses. "I eventually changed my major to computer


she says, "even though I had to take all those calculus


She did her first computer music program when a computer professor

suggested she do a class project on music. She wrote a program to

do musical exercises in four-part harmony, where you start with a

chord and melody, and develop the four-part harmony according to


rules. "I followed the rules, but it still sounded bad," she

says. "It turned out other people were doing the same kind of

project, and discovered that musicians impose another 40 to 50 rules

intuitively, rules that had never been codified."

Mercuri graduated from Penn State in 1979 with a bachelor of science

in Computer Science, after also earning a bachelor’s in Classical

Guitar from the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (now the

University of the Performing Arts). "At one point, I took 30


between the two schools, or a year’s worth in one semester," she

says, "which was a lot like when I was finishing my Ph.D.


After college, Mercuri joined the then David Sarnoff Research Center

to work on computer music on a home computer project. She did


and programming on the RCA VideoDisc system. While there, she also

co-developed several educational music games for the Apple II


After the home computer project died, RCA was no longer interested

in the programs, so in 1981 Mercuri set up her company, Notable


to distribute them. "The lawyers let us take over the


she says, "and we set up our own company to sell them while we

were still at Sarnoff."

Mercuri, who left Sarnoff in 1985, has served as president of Notable

Software since its founding ( The firm has

developed educational software that is designed to be played by


having little or no musical training, at least at the easier levels.

In "Note Trespassing," you match and learn notes as they are

displayed on the staff and played with the correct pitch. Notable

Software has extended the line with geography and history games,


"Flags of the World" and "Geography Scramble."

Mercuri also expanded into training. "I started

to get calls from schools about using computers in schools," she

says. "So I set up educational computer programming seminars,

to help teach the teachers." She also worked with recording


to help them with computer music equipment.

"The big lesson for me in the mid ’80s, which some dot-coms are

still learning now, was that I held the company too closely,"

says Mercuri. "I didn’t rely on the expertise of others on how

to run a business, for accounting, marketing, and negotiating. People

think they know everything, and have to reinvent it all."

Her training business expanded. "I was starting to teach


she says, "developing course materials, helping people to learn

how to program." In 1987 Mercuri created a training division,

Knowledge Concepts, to offer courses in computer basics, productivity

tools, programming languages, and software engineering. "I was

getting big contracts for training," she says, "through the

Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, and with the United


Army and the Federal Aviation Administration."

But consulting is often a game of credentials. "I have always

had leanings toward education," she says, "but I didn’t have

a master’s degree, and I really needed it has an independent


She enrolled at Drexel University and earned a Master of Science in

Computer Science in 1989.

As Mercuri worked through graduate school, she began teaching as an

adjunct professor for area colleges. Keeping with her ambidextrous

background, she taught subjects including computer science at Penn

State, statistics and music theory at Immaculata College, and music

at Eastern College. "But I wanted to go the full route," she

says, "and needed to get my Ph.D." So she enrolled in the

doctoral program at the School of Engineering of the University of

Pennsylvania, earning her Master of Science in Engineering along the

way in 1990.

As a doctoral candidate, she held full-time teaching positions at

Mercer County College and the College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton

State College), among others. She has taught courses in business,

computer science, engineering, mathematics, and ethics and social

values. This fall she joined the computer science faculty at Bryn

Mawr. And she finally completed her thesis — "Electronic Vote

Tabulation Checks & Balances" — and successfully defended

it in October.

That title one month ago might have seemed fairly academic — but

not now. "All voting systems are flawed," says Mercuri,


is not new knowledge. And some are more flawed than others. The flaws

we need to look at are the ones that violate the Shamos


The two major concerns are privacy and recount, is the person’s vote

private, and can the count be audited. "But privacy and


conflict," she says, "you can’t have them simultaneously in

a computer system. We have an inner conflict. We need to retain the

checks and balances and give them back to humans."

But can’t technology ultimately be the solution, rather than part

of the problem? Michael Shamos seems more optimistic than Mercuri.

"Direct recording electronic systems are fundamentally safer than

any system in which humans get to put their fingers on the ballots.

You remove the county official from the process." And with ballots

such as those in Florida, it’s virtually impossible to obtain the

exact same count twice, says Shamos. The act of passing them through

so many human hands inevitably causes some shifts in those infamous

shreds of evidence — the chads.

"When properly implemented," Shamos says, electronic systems

"can have real time accountability. But this will take years and

years to implement," he concedes. Such all-digital systems


won’t be cheap. "One thing the public doesn’t like is spending

a lot of money on elections," Shamos notes.

And the system will be tested by increasing media pressures to deliver

results quicker and quicker. "The technology has been skewed


speed rather than voter convenience or accuracy," says Shamos.

"We get away with it because most elections aren’t close."

Adds Mercuri: "There’s a strong drive to get the results out by

the 11 o’clock news. But we want to still be able to have a recount.

We need to find the true will of the voter." But without a


or paper system, the voter can’t see the ballot recorded as intended.

"For example," she suggests, "we could add a paper output

as an independent check and verification, and then we could have a

better system. It would have speed and expediency for the first


but also save the possibility of a recount."

"This is not unique to voting," says Mercuri, "there are

a variety of other areas where the issue arises as well, such as


banking, and AIDS test reporting. My thesis is really about computer

security, and voting machines is just a test case of it."

For more on making sense of computer and consumer


technology, visit

Top Of Page
Holt Vs. Zimmer

On Sunday, November 12, five days after the election,

a member of Congressman Rush Holt’s staff was calling newspaper


The call had nothing to do with Holt’s ongoing, see-saw battle in

the vote count with his challenger, former Congressman Dick Zimmer.

The Holt staffer simply wanted the media to know that the next day

Holt would be visiting a sixth grade science class in Plainsboro.

The Holt staff apparently had decided to get back on track with the

business of being a congressman. By the end of the day Monday,


13, Holt appeared to have a slight lead over Zimmer, around 180 votes

out of 290,000 cast. The final outcome of the election could turn

on "provisional ballots," votes cast by people who have moved

within a county or changed names and who attach affidavits to their

ballots attesting to their authenticity. But the Zimmer camp has


some of provisional ballots, on the basis that some affidavits were

attached to the ballot by paper clips or were sealed inside the


containing the ballot.

Holt sidestepped questions about the vote counting process. But he

did issue a statement: "We have consistently said that the


election boards ought to be allowed to finish their job without


interference. My campaign will work with the election boards to


an accurate, reliable result."

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