Market Spotlight: Government

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After several highly contested elections and now a tight presidential race heading into ovember, Auburn University’s Juan Gilbert is ready to dispense with chads entirely and deploy multimodal speech and touch-screen technology to change the way Americans vote. Now he’s just waiting on Congress.

According to Gilbert—who testified in Washington in July on the proposed Bipartisan Electronic Voting Reform Act of 2008—the accessibility, accuracy, and security of elections can be drastically improved by Prime III, the revolutionary electronic voting system he and his team created at Auburn’s Human-Centered Computing Lab.

"Prime III is the first voting system that allows you to use your voice to cast the ballot," says Gilbert, an associate professor of computer science and software engineering at Auburn. "It’s the first multimodal voting machine that does voice and touch. That makes it very unique. And by doing it that way, it, by default, becomes the most accessible."

With Prime III’s multimodal user interface and automatic speech recognition technologies, voters cast ballots either on a touch-screen or via a headset and microphone, allowing people who are blind, deaf, physically disabled, or even illiterate to use the same voting machine.

Voters using the headset and microphone receive speech prompts indicating ballot options. Each option is randomly assigned a number—e.g., To vote for the Democratic Party, say 1; to vote for the Republican Party, say 2. The voter simply speaks the randomly selected number associated with her particular choice, insuring her privacy and anonymity.

"We haven’t seen anything more accessible than Prime III," Gilbert says. "We cover the whole gambit. Everyone can vote on this machine equally."

Gilbert’s system is so accessible that Everyone Counts—a San Diego-based organization focused on providing online and telephone voting channels for the private and public sectors—turned to Prime III earlier this year to ensure that its voting system could be used by people with any disability. "[We] were very impressed by the work they were doing to serve people with disabilities," comments Paul DeGregorio, chief operating officer at Everyone Counts.

DeGregorio found the system to work well and be easy to use. "Gilbert and his team have done considerable work to get this as perfect as it can be and to serve as many disabled people as possible with this technology," he said.

Gilbert also says Prime III is more reliable than traditional voting machines due to a host of security features, including multiple encryption schemes that store each ballot among several encrypted imposter ballots, and video recorders that capture interactions on each machine’s software but don’t record or capture the voters’ identities.

"It’s very unique what we’ve proposed," Gilbert says. "The video recorders are [monitoring] each machine. If anything funky happens on that machine, we got it. So it creates what we call the ideal audit trail in the sense that if an election has a flaw or something goes wrong, we can go back and edit the videotape, watch it, and see what the root cause of the problem actually was."

Gilbert also notes the important role election officials play in the process. "We’re trying to create a chain of custody where the machine is dependent on the person and the person is dependent on the machine. So you would have to have a complete failure— a catastrophic failure, meaning you’d have to destroy the machines and/or the people—to get rid of all evidence," he says. "This chain of custody is really important because if something goes wrong, we know exactly who’s responsible for that something, and the investigation can be conducted quickly and thoroughly."

So will Americans be using Prime III anytime in the near future? Gilbert isn’t sure. "If [the Bipartisan Electronic Voting Reform Act of 2008] goes through, by 2010 we’ll see probably a lot of people using our technology," he says. "It’s hard to say when it will get wide adoption."

According to Gilbert, this will not be a moment too soon. "It’s going to pass sooner or later because we have to do something," he says. "I foresee that in the future people will be voting on machines that are multimodal."

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