Thursday, October 06, 2005

WSJ article on vote by phone

Sigh. Give them 20 minutes and you get one stinking quote. Bascially a business story on which of these companies has the edge on this technology.

In Picking a President, Voters
Soon May Be Able to Phone It In

October 6, 2005

Picking a president may become as simple as choosing the next "American Idol."

Just as fans of the television hit show dial in to vote for their favorite crooner each season, Americans may soon be able to use the telephone to vote in local elections, and could someday dial in their decision in national races.

The 2002 Help America Vote Act, which was created to simplify the voting process following the debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, helped fund the development of new voting systems. But problems remained, as evidenced by the long lines and faulty equipment that plagued Ohio during the most recent presidential election.

Most upgraded voting systems being installed are electronic devices such as Diebold Inc.'s touch-screen system. But some smaller companies are betting that phone voting may resolve some Election Day problems, including making it easier for the blind and others with disabilities to read and mark their ballots in private.

Vermont is the first state to commit to phone-voting technology. By the November 2006 elections, all of the state's voters who are unable to mark their own paper ballots are slated to use a voting system made by closely held IVS LLC.

To use the system, voters at the polling place dial into a central computer and listen to an automated recording of the candidates' names. Choices are made by pushing the "5" key, selected because the key is usually distinguishable by a raised bump on it. The system then "reads back" the selection and allows the voter to make changes at the end.

While the IVS system, called Inspire Vote-by-Phone, initially will be used only in polling places, there are plans to expand the system to voters' homes. Broadening the use of phone-voting systems to the home would make them more convenient for people with disabilities and could even boost turnout among all voters. It also raises concerns over the ability to verify the voter's identity.

"How can phone voting be set up so you're assured the person on the other end of the line is the appropriate party?" asked Paul Gronke, a political-science professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who specializes in nontraditional voting methods. Security remains a primary obstacle to voting by phone, he said.

All phone voting under the Vermont system currently takes place at the polling site, allowing a voter's identity to be verified easily. Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz said she expects around 5,000 to 10,000 participants. She added that the state is looking to eventually bring the system to the home and to make it available to overseas and military personnel, but that prospect adds complications in security and costs. The state paid $635,000 for the system, and would likely have to pay more to expand its reach.

Yung Nguyen, chief executive of IVS, said the Louisville, Ky., company is exploring ways to bring the voting system to the home. One possibility is for a government-issued personal identification number to be combined with a registered home phone that could be verified through caller ID.

Another voting-system maker, closely held PhonElect, is taking a more aggressive route in its bid to get voters to use the phone. While no states run its voting system yet, the company is seeking federal certification from the federal Election Assistance Commission, which Chief Executive Patrick Tittle believes it will get by the end of the year.

To verify a voter's identification, the St. Paul, Minn., company's system asks for a driver's license ID number, and a random question on that ID such as weight or height. The system also records the voice of the caller for later verification.

PhonElect has hit some initial snags. In April, the company showed off its system during a demonstration in Oregon, and fared poorly against other systems, including IVS. "The system I would say comparatively is slower than the other phone systems I tried," said Jeanne-Marie Moore, a community activist at the demonstration. Mr. Tittle acknowledged that there were problems with the trials, partly attributed to the long verification process. He said changes were being made. The company has run test programs in Oregon, Montana and Wisconsin.

Advanced Voting Solutions Inc. is working on a system that uses biometric technology, which can read and compare a voice with a voice print from a database. "User ID would be a slam dunk with speech verification," said Paul Kowal, president of Kowal & Associates, a consulting firm.

The closely held Frisco, Texas, company is in the early stages of development of its system. Vice President Larry Ensminger said the company is focusing on its core touch-screen business, and is looking to do some pilot programs early next year.

Write to Roger Cheng at roger.cheng@dowjones.com1
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