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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 madison.hss.cmu.edu).
"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."
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
(www.nist.gov). 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.
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 (www.cpsr.org/conferences/cfp93/shamos.html). Shamos,
a 1968 Princeton University alumnus, proposed these requirements in
the form of commandments listed in decreasing order of importance.
The "Shamos commandments:"
once, and only for those offices for which the voter is authorized
to cast a vote.
nor the exchange of gold for votes.
Commandments II-IV, but thy audit trail shall not violate Commandment
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.
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 (www.notablesoftware.com). 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."
technology, visit www.manifest-tech.com.
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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