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Systems engineering students analyze Charlottesville's voting procedures

Rebecca Arrington
Christina Mastrangelo, assistant professor of systems engineering (left), and Matthew Mehalik, a Ph.D. candidate, commute to Northern Virginia to co-teach a capstone course in U.Va.’s Executive Master’s Systems Engineering Program.

Systems engineering students analyze Charlottesville's voting procedures

By Fariss Samarrai

The extraordinarily close electoral vote in last year’s presidential election illustrated basic flaws in voting systems nationwide. In Florida especially, the margin of error in processing and counting the votes exceeded the margin of difference between the number of votes cast for each candidate.

Even after numerous recounts in Florida — official and media-sponsored — debate continues as to who actually won the election. Experts agree that these flaws must be analyzed and alleviated before another tight and divisive election alienates public trust of voting systems.

Students in U.Va.’s new Executive Master’s degree program in systems engineering selected the City of Charlottesville’s voting system as a subject for their “capstone” project, required to complete their degrees in May. The 17 graduating students in the Northern Virginia-based program have spent all of April working with the Charlottesville Board of Elections and Registrar to evaluate the city’s system, which serves 21,000 registered voters. The graduate-student team is to provide a report and recommendations for improving the system during a final presentation to the Charlottesville Board of Elections April 27 at the University.

“We chose this project because it puts to full use our training and skills in systems engineering, which is the analysis and management of immense data,” says Matthew Mehalik, a Ph.D. candidate and co-instructor for the capstone course, Systems Engineering 602. “The City of Charlottesville, which already had begun reviewing its voting system, looked at our proposal and agreed to be our client for this project. We are conducting a detailed analysis and will provide a solid set of recommendations that should be of great use to the city in its efforts to create the most accurate and efficient voting system possible.”

Courtesy of Charlottesville Office of the Registrar
Charlottesville residents from one of the districts voting on Election Day.

The students are providing a statistical analysis of nine previous elections, a simulation analysis of poll-site operations, a financial analysis of operational costs and a discussion of related legal issues.

“From this baseline, our report will recommend sets of technological and procedural alternatives for poll site and absentee voting solutions and will highlight their various strengths and weaknesses,” Mehalik said.

Though Charlottesville did not have any major problems or disputes with election results in November, the city’s current voting system does not comply with the requirements for sight-impaired people by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.Va. study is addressing ADA compliance. The city also uses the same Votomatic punch-card system that was a factor in significant counting problems in a 1999 state election in Norfolk and, more notably, in Florida in last year’s presidential election.

“The city is very enthusiastic about this project, and we look forward to seeing the students’ recommendations,” says Sheri L. Iachetta, general registrar for Charlottesville. “We have worked closely with them, creating a very open process for full evaluation. The students have proven to be extremely resourceful, insightful and energetic. Both the students and the city are benefiting.”

Iachetta says the federal General Accounting Office and the state Board of Elections also are interested in the findings produced by the study.

“Systems engineers create and use sophisticated analytical computer models to sort through mounds of data,” said Christina Mastrangelo, assistant professor of systems engineering and lead instructor for the capstone course. “We identify the critical facts and trends that will lead to informed decisions and actions for a business or organization. The voting system analysis is a perfect real-world capstone project because it allows our students to use all of their information-gathering and analytical skills.”

The Executive Master’s Degree in Systems Engineering is designed for business executives and technical professionals with the guidance of several technology companies in the Northern Virginia area. Classes are held at Xerox Document University near Herndon and taught by full-time U.Va. faculty from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. The two-year program was created two years ago. This first graduating class of 17 students will receive degrees during the University’s commencement ceremony May 20 on the Lawn.

The Capstone Conference

Fourth-year Systems and Information Engineering students prepare for real-world jobs by undertaking year-long “capstone” design projects for real-world clients in industry and government. They present their findings to clients during the annual Capstone Conference. This year, teams from Lille, France, Monterrey, Mexico, Virginia Tech and the United States Military Academy also will give presentations of their work.

“The capstone program provides an opportunity for students to do real systems engineering while still a part of their academic program,” said James W. Lark, assistant professor of systems engineering and the conference coordinator. “I believe our program is better than a conventional internship because student teams complete their fourth year of studies on Grounds during the year-long capstone experience. At the same time, the teams solve problems for their clients as if the students were onsite throughout the project. Our alumni frequently cite the capstone project as the most important part of their engineering education at U.Va.”

Because of the high quality of the capstone program, the Systems Engineering faculty is one of three finalists for the 2001 Boeing Outstanding Educator Award.

Students in systems engineering will present their findings from a variety of projects during the conference April 27, 10:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., in Newcomb Hall. For the full schedule of presentations, call 982-2100, or visit www.sys.virginia.edu/capstone/conference2001.html.



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