CLEMSON — A Clemson University research team has been chosen by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to lead a national effort to make voting systems more accessible.

Juan Gilbert, a professor and chairman of the Human-Centered Computing Division in Clemson's School of Computing, will direct a three-year, $4.5 million project funded by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to increase the accessibility of “new, existing and emerging technological solutions” in the design of voting systems.

As leader of the project, Gilbert will coordinate commission research and training efforts nationally, as well as conduct research on voting technology in his Clemson lab.

“Dr. Gilbert has a proven track record in the development of accessible computing solutions, particularly in voting technology,” said Esin Gulari, dean of Clemson's College of Engineering and Science. “This project fits quite naturally into the work that the Human-Centered Computing Division is doing, and it will help advance that research in ways that would be much more difficult to do otherwise.”

Gilbert is the developer of Prime III, an electronic voting system that combines the accessibility afforded by computer technology with old-fashioned simplicity, including a paper ballot for backup and verification. (See related video.)

“Clemson's selection by the EAC is a strong vote of confidence in Dr. Gilbert's research, and an important step forward in research at the university,” said Gerald Sonnenfeld, vice president for research at Clemson. “Federal funding for research is a critical component of university inquiry. We're proud Dr. Gilbert has been selected to lead this project and very excited by the possibilities this portends for the future.”

Prime III uses a “universal design” to make voting more accessible, not only for the disabled, but for anyone.

“By universal design, we mean an approach that makes it as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation,” Gilbert said. “That's how we approach election systems. You don't have a disability machine, but one single voting machine.”

Current law requires that voting precincts maintain voting machines that are accessible for the disabled, but some states have experienced problems maintaining multiple systems and training poll workers in their use, Gilbert said.

“If we can consolidate into one technology, then the training process becomes easier and it's more conducive for everyone,” he said.

The Election Assistance Commission's Accessible Voting Technology Initiative was begun to “support research on transformative technologies and approaches to meet the critical challenge of making voting more accessible to all eligible voters.”

Gilbert's project also addresses training and administration issues.

“Our research team is extremely interdisciplinary. We have individuals from the social sciences, engineering and computing. We have experts in accessibility. We also have experts who deal with administration: training election officials, training poll workers,” Gilbert said.

“So this project deals with technology, but it is broader than the technology. We want to be able to train election officials to use the best technological solution and to find the processes for which this kind of technology can be integrated within states,” he said.

Gilbert's Prime III software first was tested in controlled laboratory settings and later in national academic and trade association elections. He now plans to take it to public elections, first at the municipal level within the year, then in state and federal elections in 2012.

The software allows voters to cast ballots either by touch or by voice.

“If you can't see, can't hear, can't read or don't have arms, you can vote privately and independently on the same machine as anyone else,” Gilbert said. “There's no ambiguity. The ballot is easy to count, easy to verify and can be read by optical character recognition.”

Prime III includes advances in four areas:

  • Accessibility — Voters can choose to follow written or spoken instructions; likewise, they can record their votes either by touching a screen or speaking into a microphone.
  • Security — The self-contained software for Prime III is run from bootable DVDs. It never is reached online or downloaded to a local computer. Voters confirm printed ballots before they are filed with the electronic data so election officials can audit overall results from a precinct.
  • Usability ­— The software was developed through years of usability testing using focus groups that included people with a variety of physical disabilities. That research will continue in larger public tests.
  • Privacy ­— Even using the voice-activated ballot, voters don't have to divulge the names of the candidates they support. A series of voice prompts leads voters to say words such as “next” or “vote.” Printed ballots contain no identifying information; stickers bearing authenticated serial numbers  are applied to each ballot to ensure that only properly cast ballots are retained.

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U.S. Election Assistance Commission
Established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the Election Assistance Commission is an independent, bipartisan commission charged with helping states meet requirements of federal voting law. It sets guidelines, serves as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration, accredits testing laboratories and certifies voting systems. It also collects information about election administration issues for Congress and election officials.


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