Clemson program could bring online voting to SC (plus video)

January 2, 2014 

Screenshot: Juan Gilbert, chair of human-centered computing at Clemson, demonstrates Prime III

CLEMSON UNIVERSITY

— As the calendar rolls into 2014, the political season moves into hyper mode as state voters prepare to go to the polls to elect a governor and two U.S. senators and make other decisions in a mid-term election.

Memories of long lines at the polls and questions about the state’s electronic voting machines are likely to recur.

A Clemson University professor says he has some technological solutions to those problems.

Juan Gilbert, chair of human-centered computing at Clemson, envisions a time when voters will be able to cast their ballots online without leaving home, and when each vote can be verified without relying solely on electronic data.

Things are moving in that direction already, he said Thursday.

For 10 years, Gilbert and his students have been developing a program called Prime III — Premier Third Generation Voting System — which can be downloaded to a tablet, computer or smart phone.

WATCH DEMONSTRATION

The technology promises to be easier to use, cheaper, more accurate and more accessible to voters with disabilities than current voting machines, Gilbert said.

“Prime III is the world’s most accessible voting technology ever created,” he said. “And we did that in our labs.”

Clemson is making the software available free, and several manufacturers — including the maker of the touch-screen machines now used statewide in South Carolina — are considering it, he said.

The system will be used later this year in Wisconsin, he said.

The South Carolina Election Commission, however, isn’t considering any new voting system now, spokesman Chris Whitmire said.

“The state’s voting system is on the downside of its life cycle, though, and the (state Election Commission) is preparing for its eventual replacement by requesting funding from the General Assembly,” he said.

The commission has asked the Legislature for $5 million in each of the past two budgets and been denied, he said. It plans to request $10 million this year, he said.

Once funding is in place and the commission decides to replace the current system, the state would seek proposals, he said.

The state spent more than $34 million for about 11,400 iVotrinic voting machines in 2004 and 2005, according to a report released last year by the state Legislative Audit Council.

That’s about $3,000 per machine, compared to about $500 for an iPad.

The current machines leave no paper trail, which means the only verification of the accuracy of the count is re-checking the data in the computers, the LAC report says.

In the 2013 election, audits were done only on elections for state office and higher, according to the LAC report.

“One concern, especially with local elections, is the short amount of time between the election and certification,” the report says.

The state’s League of Women Voters has studied the current machines and said it found more than 2,500 errors in two counties alone in 2010, according to documents supporting its 2012 presentation to the LAC.

South Carolina is one of 16 states that uses paperless voting machines, which prompted a grade of “inadequate” by the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for accuracy, transparency and verifiability of elections.

In the system developed at Clemson, after the voter makes his selections, they are printed on a sheet of paper — only names of the candidates chosen, not the full ballot. That is fed into a machine that reads, scans, stores and counts what’s on the paper, Gilbert said.

Clemson has developed software for that process, but all the hardware is commercially available, he said.

Voters with disabilities would be able to use the same system as everyone else with Prime III, he said. Now special machines must be set up, and poll workers often don’t know how to use them, Gilbert said.

An auditory system allows visually impaired people and people unable to vote by hand to vote by voice.

Gilbert and his students have developed another system in which voters will be able to make an appointment to go to the polls at a specific time in order to cut down on lines.

Another system developed at Clemson and being used this year in Florida enables overseas military personnel to vote online.

For security, the voter is connected to a poll worker via a video link similar to Skype, Gilbert said. The poll worker must verify that the person they see on the screen matches a photo of the person in the voter registration rolls.

That system could be adapted to use by anyone, he said.

But he doesn’t expect everyone to go for that.

“We’ve found that a lot of people just like to go to the polls to vote,” he said.

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