[Moderator's note: Roy is not a regular RISKS Reader, but is one of the world's most honored watch-ers of electronic voting. He asked for some feedback on this, so the RISKS Forum seemed like an ideal place for him to find some knowledgeable and interested sources of feedback. You may respond to him directly. If you think your response would be of general interest to RISKSers, then please CC: RISKS as well. PGN] Vote-by-Phone - Promises and Pitfalls Roy G. Saltman, National Institute of Standards and Technology Many of us have had contact with a voice-response system (VRS). Perhaps you called some organization on the phone, possibly a bank to obtain your account balance, or the Motor Vehicle Bureau with a question about car registration, and you heard, not a real live person, but a recorded voice. The voice was clear and unaccented, pleasant and neutral; it was trying to be a voice with which you couldn't get personal, but it was recorded. The voice told you to push particular buttons on your phone to obtain particular kinds of information. VRSs have come into wide use in the past few years. The systems are computer-based. The voice you hear when your call is answered is not on an audio tape like an answering machine, but it is a reconstruction from computer memory of the voice of an actual person. That individual and others, if more than one speaker was used, have pre-recorded all the potential messages. The messages were "digitized" (converted into data for a computer) and stored in a computer memory. When you selected a particular push-button on your phone, that selection activated a corresponding branch of a computer program. The program chose the appropriate response message from the computer memory. The digitized message was then reconverted to a real voice that you heard through your phone. If you were fortunate, the choices offered you by the voice included exactly the information you were seeking; if not, you stayed on the line even if you didn't have a dial phone, and perhaps you got to talk to a flesh-and-blood human. Some Questions Could we vote by phone, using a VRS with the added functions of vote recording and summarization? It's technically feasible, and will be tried in at least one community if some folks in Boulder, Colorado, have their way. However, there are special considerations in addition to the ordinary questions of system design to meet the needs of the particular election situation. Here are some concerns: * Proof of identity could be a problem. * Privacy could be an issue, as well, if the voter is in a location where others might be watching or listening or electronically eavesdropping. * User-friendliness would need to be designed into the system. Voters have different capabilities. There are always special cases when a person with no special training uses an unfamiliar machine. * The voter without touch-tone phone service must be considered; older ways of voting might have to be retained, in addition to voting-by-phone. * Accounting and accountability are a concern. It must be absolutely certain that the computer is correctly recording each voter's choices and accurately summarizing the votes for each candidate. * The system would have to be secure against malicious mischief; extra phone calls from disrupters should not be able to clog the system and prevent its use by participating voters. * Reliability must be a priority; the system would need to available for use at all times throughout the hours that the polls are open. Dialing In The voter with touch-tone phone service would dial a toll-free number. Hopefully, the system will have been designed to be able to accept the maximum number of calls expected at any one time, so that the chance of getting a busy signal will be very small. When the call is answered, the voice would identify its function of providing the voter with election choices and of recording the voter's selections. Perhaps the first selection that the voice will ask the voter to make is the language that the voter would wish to hear. For example, the voter might be asked to push 1 for English, 2 for Spanish, and 3 for another language widely used in the local area. Alternatively, different phone numbers could be used for speakers of different languages. Verifying Registration The next step would be to identify the voter as eligible to vote. For this purpose, the system would have to have the complete file of registered voters resident in the jurisdiction "on-line," that is, instantly accessible. The voter would be asked to enter a multi-digit personal identification number (PIN) and possibly some not-publicly-available personal data. The voter would have been prevously sent his or her PIN by mail. For assured identification, the possibility must be minimized that a random selection of digits, or even the filching of a PIN, could result in a successful masquerade. A PIN is typically employed with an automatic teller money machine (ATM). In using an ATM, the accountholder enters a PIN and physically inserts a plastic card with a magnetic-stripe containing encoded data. The information available to the system from the stripe on the card enables the PIN to be as short as four digits. With the concept that any touch-tone phone could be used for voting, the absence of ATM-like functionality is assumed. In that case, the PIN would need to be cosiderably longer than four digits, perhaps eight or more, and the inclusion of personal data would serve additionally to prevent fraud. In addition, it is assumed here that typical State legal requirements for a signature on voting, or personal recognition by a precinct official, or a similar requirement, would have been previously circumvented by legislation. The Voting Process Once registration has been verified, and the voter has not been recorded as having voted, a review by the computer of the voter's residence location would determine the contests for which the voter is entitled to vote. The system would then begin to request choices from the voter; for example, "For president, to vote for Washington, Federalist, push 1, for Jefferson, Democrat-Republican, push 2, for Roosevelt, Bull Moose, push 3, for a write-in, push 9, and to go on to the next contest, push 0." The "go on to the next contest" message provides the voter with the option of not voting for any candidate. An alternative is for the voice to say, "for none of the above, push 0." With either message, if the voter selects any option but write-in, the voice can repeat back the choice ("you voted for .... ") and then proceed immediately to the next contest. If the voter selected a write-in, the system could then ask the voter to enter the name of the write-in candidate using the letters on the phone buttons, and to push # when finished. Voters planning to write in a candidate's name should be told to prepare beforehand the number-equivalents of the letters in the name (e.g., Smith is 76484), so that the entry process will be as simple as possible. Special assignments for the letters Q and Z would need to be made if those letters were included in a candidate's name, as those letters do not appear on the phone buttons. Usually, Q is assigned to the PRS (7) button and Z to the WXY (9) button. The # button, or * or 1, could be used as an indication that the voter is finished with the write-in, as none of those buttons is used for letters. The use of phone buttons to represent a name provides a somewhat ambiguous result, since each button represents three or four letters. There would have to be an understanding and agreement by the election administrators of what name is intended. If this procedure is not acceptable, some other write-in method would need to be invented. User-Friendly Requirements System designers would need to keep in mind the following: Sign-In Problems: If a legitimate voter is not able to get his or her identity and registration verified, for whatever reason, the voter must be able to contact the election administrators to get help or to obtain a different method of voting. Time Allowance: How long should a voter be allowed to ponder a particular contest, and what should the system do if the voter has failed to vote when that interval is up? Voter's Error: What does the voter do if he or she has pushed the wrong button, and wants to reverse a choice, (a) while the contest is current or (b) during a choice for a subsequent contest? Repeating the Choices: How does the voter indicate to the system that he or she wants the choices repeated before casting a vote? Voting by phone would be particularly difficult where the voter has to select a large number of choices from an even larger number of candidates, typically for certain public boards, such as political party central committees. Voice-response is serial; the voter cannot see all the choices at once, and cannot see the selections made. It may be that a ballot should be sent to each voter beforehand, so that the voter could visualize the choices to be made while on the phone. Overvotes and Undervotes: The system could indicate to the voter that he or she has voted for more or fewer candidates than permitted. Overvotes should be prevented and undervotes allowed. What messages, if any, should be system provide to the voter in these cases? Failure to Complete the Process: It is possible that a voter could be called away from the phone by an emergency or a higher priority task while in the process of voting. This could happen with a voter at home or at the office. What does the system do? Voter Disinterest: The voter does not wish to vote on the lower-level offices or referenda, except for one particular contest. How does the voter tell the system to skip to that contest, or cancel the remainder of the process? Verifying Choices: After the voter has completed voting, does the system repeat back to the voter the choices made? The only "correct" answers to these questions are those that demonstrate to voters that the system is easy to use and should be widely adopted. If ease of use cannot be implemented, voters will find the system too complex and may not vote at all. Voters Without Phone Access The voter lacking personal access to a touch-tone phone would need to be provided with an alternate method. Touch-tone public phones could be used and the phones could be arranged to require no fee for a voting call. However, these phones are typically in locations where privacy could be a problem. Another method would be to treat those without touch-tone phones as absentee voters, and send them ballots to be returned by mail. If polling stations are to be kept open, each voter would have to declare in advance, like absentee voting, whether he or she planned to vote by phone or vote at the polls. Otherwise, each polling station would need to have on-line access to a voter database that reported which voters had already voted by either method. On-line updating would be needed to prevent an individual from voting by both methods. Accuracy, Accountability, and Public Confidence The vote-by-phone system is somewhat more complex than a typical VRS. In addition to the selection of particular messages, the voter's button-pushing actions must cause his or her voting choices to be correctly recorded and accurately assigned to particular candidates. In addition, the system uses no ballots independently filled out by the voter. Consequently, there is no way that a true recount of the results reported by the system could be obtained. In view of the manner of system operation, it is essential that all the groups involved, that is, the voters, the election administration, the contending parties, and the candidates, have full confidence in the results that the system produces. The only way that confidence can be achieved is for operation of the system be thoroughly tested and checked out before the election. The software used in the system should be totally protected from outside influences, and an identical copy of all of it secured in the hands of the chief State election officer. System testing should use both internal analysis of the computer program, as well as testing and checking system response to a variety and quantity of different potential voter selections and actions. In addition, voter accounting data must be retained. These data include the number of voters signed in and eligible to vote for each contest, and the number of undervotes in each contest. The number of votes plus undervotes in each vote-for-N contest, N = 1, 2, 3, etc., should equal N times the number of voters voting for the contest. Public understanding that the system does not violate voter privacy is also essential to public acceptance. Voters must be certain that the part of the system that verifies their identities is distinct and separate from the part of the system that records their votes, and that there is no communication of voter identity between the two parts. Assuring System Security Total system integrity involves security, in addition to accuracy and accountability. By security is meant the control of access to the system, where legitimate access is allowed and other access prevented. In an on-line system, such as vote-by-phone, it is crucial that callers only be able to record their voting choices and not be able to, by any combination of pushing buttons, achieve access to the controlling programs of the system. Based on a history of hacker activity, protection must be implemented against potential disruptions. Other on-line systems have restricted attempts to sign-on to a small number of successive tries on a single call, e.g., not more than three, so that it would not be possible to randomly try many PINs on one call until a correct one is found. Extra calls clogging the system could not be prevented unless automatic number identification (ANI), with which the call recipient knows the caller's phone number, could be used in connection with pre-established voter phone numbers. Voters could be asked to specify a phone number, and one or two alternates, from which they would vote. Then, if ANI were available, the system could ignore those calls not from a voter's phone. If ANI were not available, calls could be timed-out and ended if the caller remained on the line for more than a maximum number of seconds without successfully completing the initial steps. If a phone from which clogging calls were being made could be identified, it is possible that laws that already exist or could be enacted would allow legal action to be taken. Of course, the election would be long over before a penalty could be imposed. The Future The expectation of supporters of vote-by-phone is that its convenience will increase turnout. With a well-designed system, convenience would be improved for persons who are handicapped or home-bound, for frequent travelers away on a moment's notice, and those who always seem to be too busy to go to the polls. Of course, absentee ballots are already available for them. Some think that failure to vote is simply an administrative problem that new technology or simplified procedures could easily solve, but this article has attempted to show that the application of new technology requires thoughtful and detailed consideration of implementation issues that connect technology to effective human use. Issues have been raised, and some directions for solutions identified, but the real challenges are left to the designers. Other persons think that failure to vote is a social problem with much deeper causes and solutions than the type of technology being employed. Only several trials of vote-by-phone in different kinds of communities could provide some answers, but the funding of such trials is not a trivial issue. Election administration must compete for funds with all of the other concerns that face State and local governments; advocates of vote-by-phone would need to demonstrate the urgency of their proposals.
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