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Meet Our Election Expert: Douglas Jones (v. 2.0)

Douglas Jones - University of Iowa Department of Computer Science
(Updated from original Oct 25, 2011 Spotlight)

While computer technology has enabled great advances in many fields.  It has created a vast morass of new problems.  One area where these converge is voting technology.  The potential of direct democracy mediated by computers has enticed various people since the early 1970s, and with the advent of the Internet and cellphones, the attraction of this idea has grown immensely.  At the same time, we are discovering that we have not achieved universal access.  The computers and cellphones that are so accessible to some remain utterly inaccessible to others, and user interfaces that some find natural merely mystify others.  As computer security problems have multiplied, the ability of election administrators to administer computerized voting systems has grown tenuous, and in recent years, the emergence of state-based hacking groups attempting to interfere with elections in other countries has grabbed the headlines.

Douglas W. Jones, associate professor of computer science in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been involved in election technology since late 1994 when he volunteered to serve on the Iowa Board of Examiners for Voting Machines and Electronic Voting Systems.  He was appointed to that board and served for a decade, including a term as chair.

As the polls closed in November 2016, he joined with a number of computer scientists around the country in calling for recounts in the Presidential race to help determine if hackers had indeed corrupted the vote count.  Jones was involved in the court battles surrounding the recounts in Michigan and Wisconsin.  In Michigan, the recount was stopped, but in Wisconsin, the recounts continued to completion, showing that while the vote count was not perfect, the irregularities in the count were not sufficient to upset the official result.  When political scientist Joseph P. Harris proposed computerized vote counting in 1965, he also proposed that every election be followed by an audit to determine of the computers were honest.  The 2016 recount battle did not result in the kind of audit Harris wanted, but it helps assure us that the count was honest, at least in Wisconsin.

In late 2009, Jones was appointed by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission as one of four new technical and scientific experts to its Technical Guidelines Development Committee, where he served until 2012, when the commission became dormant, a victim of partisan battles about the federal role in regulation. The TGDC is charged under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) with assisting the EAC in developing federal voluntary voting system guidelines that are used to test and certify voting systems.

In 2005, he was awarded a five-year, $800,000 National Science Foundation grant to investigate the use of electronic voting systems. The grant was part of a $7.5 million NSF project called ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections) that ended in 2011.  Working with ACCURATE, Jones investigated both voting system security and human factors issues arising with touch-screen voting systems.

Between 2004 and 2007, Jones worked with the Carter Center, the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Coopereation in Europe on how to observe elections that use computerized voting technology.  He was directly involved in observing electronic voting in Kazakhstan and the Netherlands, and he contributed to proposed guidelines for election observers.


In 2011, Gary Galluzzo interviewed Douglas Jones for FYI, at the time, the University of Iowa Staff Newspaper.  The following is from that interview, lightly updated:

What is the biggest problem in elections?

To be viewed as fair, an election system must be transparent. To borrow a phrase from Dan Wallach, former associate director of ACCURATE, the system must convince the losers that they lost. However, the losers and their supporters often have no required technical qualifications. This means that the entire election system must be open and comprehensible so that nontechnical observers can believe the results.

When and where was the most interesting election system you were ever asked to investigate?

Two trips to Kazakhstan were real eye-openers. On the surface, they regulate voting systems much as we do, so the problems I found illustrate risks we must take seriously in this country.

In November 2005 and again in 2007, I participated in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election-observing mission in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstan electronic voting system includes interesting innovations involving stateless voting machines and using smart card technology. However, it also has some severe defects.

As in the United States, an independent testing authority must approve Kazakh voting machines, and detailed reports by the authority on the system are delivered only to the voting-system developers, with no intention that these ever become public documents. This is dangerous. But in Kazakhstan, even some of the standards were state secrets, so we can’t even tell what the machines wee supposed to do.

So which is more accurate and efficient — paper or electronic ballots?

The best and most efficient system is one that uses a combination of computers and paper ballots. Voting on paper ballots — which can be stored and checked if irregularities in the vote count later develop — is important. For speed, efficiency, and ease of counting, computers are more accurate than humans.

It is important to keep in mind that the term “computer security” is almost an oxymoron. We can make computers more secure, but we cannot guarantee security. Therefore, if we want trustworthy elections, there must be a way to check the results without relying on the computers involved.

What other research areas interest you?

In the 1990s, I was heavily involved in real-time control of stepping motors. My Web pages on that subject are still widely cited, and designers of computer-controlled mechanisms still contact me on a regular basis for advice about motor control.

I am generally interested in the history of technology. As a result, my book Broken Ballots on electronic voting systems begins in the 19th century with a discussion of the origins of mechanical voting machines, and I am involved with restoring antique computer equipment that the University of Iowa has managed to save.

What courses do you teach?

One of my favorite courses is CS:2630, Computer Organization, the undergraduate introduction to how computers actually work. This is a course where I get to see students experience “Aha!” moments when they finally understand how it is that computers are able to execute their programs. I also enjoy teaching Compiler Construction, and CS:2820, Object Oriented Software Development.

What risks do you see in the conduct of elections in the coming years?

We conduct elections on a shoestring, using more and more technically sophisticated machinery. As a consequence, many election administrators are using equipment they hardly understand. The result is a strong temptation to outsource election administration. This is dangerous.

There is rising pressure from many sectors to use the Internet or cellphone network for voting. If we move in this direction, we risk creating a new praetorian guard — the keepers of the network. If the keepers of the network are honest, the elections will be honest, but if they are not, just as in ancient Rome, they — not the people — will determine who is elected.


Related content

Prof. Doug Jones — The Election of 2016: Was it hacked?

Professor Doug Jones on Voting Security (Developing)