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Freshman Seminars

Freshmen cast for answers in seminar on voting machinery

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- As they watch and vote in this year's presidential election, students in the freshman seminar ''Election Machinery'' are seeing the subject of their course play out in real life. The events of Nov. 2, in turn, will set the direction for the remainder of the course.

Combining history, technology and policy, the course examines the procedures and physical devices that are intended to assure accuracy, reliability and fairness in elections. Students also are learning about the many ways in which those safeguards can break down, especially with the advent of electronic voting.

freshman seminar

Professor Andrew Appel (rear) and students are studying election machinery this fall.

''For more than 100 years, there have been voting abuses as well as procedures and gadgets put in place to combat those abuses. These measures have been mostly successful,'' said Andrew Appel, a professor of computer science. ''When we think about new machinery and new procedures, we shouldn't forget what kinds of abuses have occurred in the past and who profited from them.''

From their classroom in Joline Hall, Appel's students are at the front lines of what may be one of the most scrutinized presidential votes. Almost one-third of the country is expected to cast ballots on electronic touch-screen machines without any physical record of the votes. If the results are very close, the performance of the machines could be a critical factor. In New Jersey, a coalition of citizens has filed a lawsuit to stop the use of electronic machines, and Appel was called to submit expert testimony in the case.

At a recent class, students heard a guest talk by 1999 Princeton graduate alumnus Dan Wallach, now at Rice University, who co-wrote a highly publicized paper that exposed security flaws in one leading brand of electronic voting machines and set in motion a wave of new safeguards. The discussion moved from details of encryption technologies to big picture questions of what is required to create confidence in a voting process.

''The point is to understand enough of the technology to apply it to policy questions,'' said Appel. ''There are a lot of people thinking about policy who don't have the technical basis they need.''

The students spoke with election officials in Trenton and met the president of a voting machine company. In one session, a 76-year-old New Jersey resident, Ed Kessler, told students about going to the Jersey City polls with his father in the 1930s and watching city employees show poll monitors how they had marked their ballots. Showing how they voted was a requirement for keeping their city jobs. Forty years later, Kessler worked as ''poll challenger'' during a mayoral election in Newark and called in federal marshals when men working for one of the candidates used physical intimidation to prevent him from inspecting the voting machines or the voter lists.

''It doesn't matter what the machines are doing if you have thugs at the polling place,'' said Appel.

Freshman Taylor White said he would have a heightened awareness when he returned home for early voting in Tennessee on an electronic machine that uses a particularly controversial technology.

''Previously I had the general public perception that 'These are new computer machines and they are easier to use than the older machines, so what could be wrong with them?''' said White. ''I guess you assume there's been extensive testing. I had no idea that the programming code itself is classified and not even the people buying the machines have access to that code.''

Appel said that an important part of the course, which is designated the Richard L. Smith '70 Freshman Seminar, is allowing the students to develop their own ideas and help shape the discussion. For the class session following the elections, Appel's assignment is simply to ''read the newspapers and the Web [and] bring in all the good stuff you can find.'' He has left the syllabus open in December to allow for discussion of the election results.

''In the first half of the course, my focus has been on having them figure out what the questions are,'' said Appel. ''In the second half, it will be time to take stock and figure out a strategy for coming to conclusions. There are an enormous number of questions and it may be that some of the questions don't have entirely satisfactory answers.''

For more stories on this year's Freshman Seminar Program, see pages 6 and 7.