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UI prof is 'Yoda' of voting machines

UI prof is 'Yoda' of voting machines
UI prof is 'Yoda' of voting machines 

By Hieu Pham
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 1, 2006

Douglas Jones didn't know how to respond to the Washington, D.C., 
lobbyist who a few years ago called him "the Yoda of voting machines."

"It was strange," said Jones, a University of Iowa associate professor 
of computer science. "I wasn't sure how to take it."

Since the voting debacle in Florida that marked the presidential 
election in 2000, Jones has become a leading expert on voting security 
in the United States.

His early critique of voting machines has led to testimonies before the 
United States Commission on Civil Rights, the United States House 
Committee on Science and the Federal Election Commission on voting 
issues. Last year, he also participated as an election observer for the 
presidential election in Kazakhstan.

Most recently, Douglas was asked to testify in a Colorado case where 
voters challenged and won a lawsuit against the use of unreliable voting 

The attention comes as a bigger surprise to Jones that to anyone else.

"It was an accident of sorts," said Jones, whose former research was 
based on real-time control systems, an area he described as "highly 
technical and one that no one has ever heard of."

But in 1994, former Iowa Secretary of State Paul Tate's request for a 
voting security expert to form the Iowa State Board of Voting Machines 
intrigued Jones, who volunteered without really wanting the job.

"I thought, 'Well, I've done the computer security and wouldn't it be 
awful if no one else volunteered?"' he said.

As it turned out, Jones was the only one to volunteer for the position.

"Those first six years is when I learned how the 'big system' worked 
(and) by 1997, I found signficant problems in the machines that were 
presented to us," he said. "By spring of 2000, I was convinced that 
someone had to be more vocal."

Jones posted a critical report on the Internet and was a guest speaker 
at a few UI events. After the 2000 election, Jones said everyone looking 
for people who studied election problems came calling -- especially 
because Jones was one of the few critics of politics' electronic future.

"I haven't had the time to do any research, except on voting," he said.

Last year, Jones also helped launch a National Science Foundation 
project called ACCURATE, or A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, 
Auditable and Transparent Elections. The five-year project includes 
researchers from UI, Stanford University, University of 
California-Berkeley, SRI International, Rice University and John Hopkins 

ACCURATE examines electronic voting, computer security and public policy 
issues relating to the use of computers and human-computer interaction.

"We have to design technology that's extraordinarily easy to use. Our 
current voting regulations don't look at how complicated it is," he 

Aside from technology, Jones saidthe American election system is the 
most complicated in the world.

He said on average, there are four elections a year in the U.S., with 
nearly eight different issues on one ballot. In other countries, it is 
not uncommon to see just one issue on a ballot.

"We have a lot of work to do ... it's the pieces that are the problem," 
he said. "We need to deal with immediate problems to get to the big 

Jones said hand-marked paper ballots that can be counted by local 
machines are probably the best ballot choice.

"It's a far cry from tinkering with real neat technology," he said. "But 
there's a tremendous feeling that I'm doing something useful because it 
addresses something central in our democracy."


Douglas Jones

* Hometown: Ann Arbor, Mich.

* Job title: UI assistant professor of computer science.

* Education: Bachelor's in physics at Carnegie Mellon University;
  master's and Ph.D in computer science, University of Illinois.

* Family: Wife, Beverly; son, Nathaniel, 23; daughter, Rachel, 22.

* Did you know? Douglas said his role as a charter member of the Iowa
  City Urban Deer Management Committee, which at the time dealt with
  the sharpshooting controversy, prepared him for the media spotlight.

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