The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Roy Saltman, election expert who warned of hanging chads, dies at 90

His 1988 report calling for the ban of punch-card ballots was widely ignored. Then chaos ensued during the 2000 presidential recount in Florida.

Election technology expert Roy Saltman at his Columbia, Md., home in 2000. Mr. Saltman died April 21. (Family photo)
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Roy G. Saltman, who as the federal government’s top expert on voting technology wrote a prescient but little-read report warning about hanging chads on punch-card ballots more than a decade before the issue paralyzed the nation during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, died April 21 at a nursing home in Rockville, Md. He was 90.

The cause was complications from several recent strokes, said his grandson Max Saltman.

Like legions of Washington bureaucrats who are vital figures in their narrow fields but largely unknown to the wider public, Mr. Saltman toiled in obscurity for decades at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where he wrote several reports examining the history of voting devices and the problems with them.

In a 132-page report published in 1988, Mr. Saltman detailed how hanging chads — the tiny pieces of cardboard that sometimes aren’t totally punched out on ballots — had plagued several recent elections, including a 1984 race for property appraiser in Palm Beach County, Fla.

“It is recommended,” Mr. Saltman wrote, “that the use of pre-scored punch card ballots be ended.”

As with many recommendations issued from the bowels of the federal bureaucracy, Mr. Saltman’s report was paid little to no attention.

Twelve years later, chaos erupted in Florida.

The presidential race between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush ended in a lengthy recount during which election officials spent weeks examining hanging chads. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ended the process, handing the presidency to Bush.

By then, Mr. Saltman’s earlier report was being discussed at congressional hearings and on think tank panels examining what went wrong in Florida.

“It has always puzzled me why my report never got a wider acceptance,” he told USA Today in 2001. “It takes a crisis to move people, and it shouldn’t have.”

Mr. Saltman became a go-to source for reporters writing about voting issues, including the eventual computerization of ballots, of which he was skeptical.

“An election is like the launch of a space rocket,” he liked to say. “It must work the first time.”

As an MIT-trained electrical engineer, Mr. Saltman brought a unique perspective to his work. Throughout his career, his reports demonstrated a keen interest in how technology intersected with the history of democracy and voting rights. His 2006 book “The History and Politics of Voting Technology” describes voting methods dating back to the 19th century.

“What made Roy so unique was both his attention to how automation works in society coupled with a broad commitment to enfranchisement and democracy,” said Charles Stewart III, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor who studies elections and consulted with Mr. Saltman. “He felt that engineers such as himself had a real duty to alert the public to the potential dangers of technology.”

Mr. Saltman wasn’t a Luddite, Stewart said, and he believed that computers could be beneficial for elections.

But he was strongly opposed to computer systems that had no audit trail for voters and election officials. He thought paper printouts of ballots were useful for voters to review, but only if each vote was printed as soon as it was cast — otherwise voters might skim their completed ballots and miss issues. He also opposed computer voting machines that employed complex operating systems.

“Roy was very skeptical about a lot of things and he thought about these issues very thoughtfully, with a lot of determination,” said Rebecca Mercuri, a computer security and elections technology expert who collaborated with Mr. Saltman. “He really wanted people to understand how these systems work.”

Roy Gilbert Saltman was born July 15, 1932, in Manhattan, and he grew up in the Bronx and Queens. His father was a production manager in the garment industry and later at an electrical appliance factory. His mother was a homemaker.

Mr. Saltman studied electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., graduating in 1953. Two years later, he received a master’s degree in engineering at MIT. He continued his engineering studies at Columbia University and in 1976 received a master’s in public administration from American University.

In 1969, after stints at the Sperry electronics company and IBM, Mr. Saltman joined the National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He initially worked as a systems analyst on federal software policy but shifted to voting technology in the 1970s.

His first major report in the field was published in 1978. He retired in 1996 and became an election consultant. In addition to his book on voting, Mr. Saltman continued to express his views on elections through letters to The Washington Post.

“In the recent stories concerning Georgia’s photo ID requirement for voters,” he wrote in a 2005 letter to the editor, “much has been made of a possible violation of the Voting Rights Act. However, a higher authority is available — the Constitution.”

He continued: “The 24th Amendment bars a poll tax in federal elections, and poll taxes in state elections were barred under the 1966 Supreme Court decision in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections. If citizens are required to purchase a photo ID, at a cost of $20 every five years, in order to vote, I hope the Supreme Court would see that as the equivalent of a poll tax.”

Mr. Saltman’s first marriage, to Lenore Sack, ended in divorce. He married Joan Ephross in 1992. She died in 2008.

Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Eve, David and Steven Saltman; three stepchildren, David, Peter and Sara Ephross; and nine grandchildren.

Mr. Saltman dedicated his election book to his grandchildren.

“May they be able to live beyond 2100 in this country,” he wrote, “assured that the voting process is fair and its integrity unquestioned.”