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Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy (2018)

Chapter: 1 Introduction

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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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1

Introduction

“The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society . . .”1

“Every voter’s vote is entitled to be counted once. It must be correctly counted and reported.”2

During the 2016 presidential election, America’s election infrastructure was targeted by a foreign government.3 According to assessments by members of the U.S. Intelligence Community,4 actors sponsored by the Russian government “obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.”5 While the full

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1Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964).

2Gray v. Sanders, 372 U.S. 368 (1963).

Throughout this report, to be counted means to be included in a vote tally. Tally refers to the total number of votes cast. Tabulation refers to the aggregation of the votes cast by individual voters to produce vote totals.

3 For the purposes of this report, election infrastructure is defined as the physical and organizational structures and facilities and personnel needed for the operation of elections.

4 The U.S. Intelligence Community consists of 16 agencies working under the coordination of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The 16 agencies are the: Central Intelligence Agency; Defense Intelligence Agency; Federal Bureau of Investigation; National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; National Reconnaissance Office; National Security Agency/Central Security Service; U.S. Department of Energy; U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); U.S. Department of State; U.S. Department of the Treasury; Drug Enforcement Administration; U.S. Air Force; U.S. Army; U.S. Coast Guard; U.S. Marine Corps; and U.S. Navy.

5 The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assessed “that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.” See Office of the

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×

extent and impact of these activities is not known and our understanding of these events is evolving, there is little doubt that these efforts represented an assault on the American system of representative democracy. The 2016 Russian probes of the U.S. voting infrastructure also were accompanied by directed social media campaigns spreading disinformation that sought to divide the American electorate and undermine confidence in democratic institutions. As former Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden observed in testimony to the committee that authored this report, these efforts represented part of a sustained campaign to discredit Western countries and institutions and specifically “Western democratic processes and the American election.”6 The Russian campaign represents an unsettling development that adds greatly to the technical and operational challenges facing election administrators.

The vulnerability of election systems to cyberattacks became a growing concern during the campaign leading up to the 2016 presidential election.7 That threat caused so much concern that, in the fall of 2016, the federal

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Director of National Intelligence, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, Intelligence Community Assessment,” January 6, 2017, p. iii, available at: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf. Bolded text is original to the document.

By September 2017, voter registration systems or public election sites in 21 states had been identified by DHS as having been targeted by Russian hackers. See, e.g., National Association of Secretaries of State, “NASS Statement on US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Outreach to 21 States Regarding Potential Targeting,” September 25, 2017, available at: https://www.nass.org/node/284 and Horwitz, Sari, Ellen Nakashima, and Matea Gold, “DHS Tells States About Russian Hacking During 2016 Election,” Washington Post, September 22, 2017.

Voter registration systems and public election websites (e.g., state “my voter” pages) are election systems. For the purposes of this report, election system is defined as a technology-based system that is used to collect, process, and store data related to elections and election administration. In addition to voter registration systems and public election websites, election systems include voting systems (the means through which voters cast their ballots), vote tabulation systems, election night reporting systems, and auditing systems.

Whether there were attacks on voting systems or vote tabulation systems is unknown. The committee authoring this report is not aware of an ongoing investigation into this possibility. In 2016, gaps in intelligence gathering, information sharing, and reporting led to problems that were underappreciated at the time of the intrusions leaving considerable uncertainty about what happened, even today. See, e.g., U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Russian Targeting of Election Infrastructure During the 2016 Election: Summary of Initial Findings and Recommendations,” May 8, 2018, pp. 1-2, available at: https://www.burr.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/RussRptInstlmt1-%20ElecSec%20Findings,Recs2.pdf.

6 Comments by General Michael Hayden at the third meeting of the Committee on the Future of Voting, the National Academies, October 18, 2017, Washington, DC, webcast available at: https://livestream.com/accounts/7036396/events/7752647.

7 By late fall 2016, the U.S. intelligence community had determined that Russia had directed the theft and disclosure of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including U.S. political organizations, for the purpose of “interfer[ing] with the US election process.” See U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Joint Statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×

government took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) urging state and local governments to be “vigilant and seek cybersecurity assistance from DHS.”8 In late December 2016, as the extent of Russian activities became apparent, President Barack Obama invoked sanctions against Russia for its efforts to disrupt the presidential election. In early January 2017, then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson observed that, “Given the vital role elections play in this country, it is clear that certain systems and assets of election infrastructure meet the definition of critical infrastructure, in fact and in law.” In early 2017, the nation’s election systems were given critical infrastructure status.9

Since the 2000 election, election infrastructure has been a focus of attention due to concerns about aging and insecure voting equipment, inadequate poll worker training, insufficient numbers of voting machines and pollbooks, deficient voter registration information systems, and inadequate verification procedures for votes cast. Long before concerns about Russian interference surfaced, state and local election administrators had been forced to reevaluate and modernize the operation of voting systems10 in the wake of incidents such as the “hanging chad” debacle in the 2000 presidential election and long lines that occurred in some jurisdictions in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 elections. In advance of the 2016 election, as they had in the past, officials worked aggressively to ensure that the 2016 national election would run smoothly and without disruptions and that election systems—including public election websites, voter registration systems, voting systems, vote tabulation systems, election night reporting systems, and auditing systems—would meet the challenges of a national election.

Today, long-standing concerns about outdated and insecure voting systems and newer developments such as cyberattacks, the designation of election systems as critical infrastructure, and allegations of widespread voter fraud, have combined to focus attention on U.S. election systems

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on Election Security,” October 7, 2016, available at: https://www.dhs.gov/news/2016/10/07/joint-statement-department-homeland-security-and-office-director-national.

8 “Joint Statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security.”

Critical infrastructure refers to “assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.” See U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “What Is Critical Infrastructure?,” available at: https://www.dhs.gov/what-critical-infrastructure.

9 Johnson, Jeh, “Statement by Secretary Jeh Johnson on the Designation of Election Infrastructure as a Critical Infrastructure Subsector,” January 6, 2017, available at: https://www.dhs.gov/news/2017/01/06/statement-secretary-johnson-designation-election-infrastructure-critical.

10 Throughout this report, the term voting system refers to the means through which voters cast their ballots.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×

and operations. The issues highlighted in 2016 add urgency to a careful reexamination of the conduct of elections in the United States and demonstrate a need to carefully consider tradeoffs with respect to access and cybersecurity. This report responds to the needs of this moment.

ELECTIONS IN THE UNITED STATES

Unlike other nations, the United States has no centralized, nationwide election authority.11 The Constitution leaves it to individual states to run and regulate elections (see Box 1-1).12 Congress may, however, make regulations that supersede state regulations on the conduct of federal contests. Federal anti-discrimination laws have been enacted to ensure registration and poll access for all eligible voters.13

Until the Australian (secret) ballot was adopted by most of the states in the 1890s, many Americans voted in public, sometimes casting their votes orally, with no voting booths or other means of protecting the confidentiality of an individual’s vote.14 (See Figure 1-1.)

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11 Decentralization allows voting technologies to be adapted to meet local needs, laws, and traditions. It may spur innovation, with states serving as, in the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “laboratories of democracy.” Decentralization may also help impede certain attacks on election infrastructure, as it greatly multiplies potential points of attack.

Decentralization implies, however, that there will be a diversity of strength and weakness, and malicious actors have the freedom to focus on the most weakly defended systems. In a close election, successful attacks against a few weakly protected swing states or swing districts could tip national results. Moreover, a successful attack anywhere will detract from voter confidence everywhere.

States and localities often lack the resources that a central government might bring to support of election infrastructure.

Decentralization also fragments the markets for election technologies. This might affect costs and hinder innovation.

The diffuse responsibility for American elections can also contribute to a lack of clarity with regard to the level of government that is responsible for responding to acute attacks on election infrastructure.

12 In some states and jurisdictions, the conduct of elections and the registration of voters are administered by two separate and distinct entities.

13 See U.S. Constitution, Article I § 4 and 4th, 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution; Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. §§ 10101 et seq.; Voting Age Act, 52 U.S.C. §§ 10701 and 10702; Voting Accessibility for Elderly and Handicapped Act, 52 U.S.C. §§ 20101 et seq.; Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, 52 U.S.C. §§ 20301 et seq.; and National Voter Registration Act, 52 U.S.C. §§ 20501 et seq.

14 See Ludington, Arthur C., American Ballot Laws, 1888–1910. New York State Education Department Bulletin No. 448 (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1911); Evans, Eldon Cobb, A History of the Australian Ballot System in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1917); and Katz, Jonathan N. and Brian R. Sala, “Careerism, Committee Assignments, and the Electoral Connection,” American Political Science Review, 1996, No. 90, pp. 21-33, Table 1.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×

Today, U.S. elections are administered by thousands of jurisdictions. Elections encompass both highly visible contests, such as the presidential election, and contests to elect minor local officials. Some jurisdictions contain fewer than 100 voters while others contain millions. Elections are overseen by state and/or local officials acting according to laws and rules promulgated by state and local governments. Many elections offices have few dedicated staff and little access to the latest information technology (IT) training or tools.15 While elections end for most voters once they have cast their ballots and the results of the election are announced, election administrators must constantly be planning for future elections.

Motivated to make participation easier and election administration more efficient, some states have introduced new modes of voting, such as in-person early voting, vote centers, and voting by mail. Estimates are difficult to make with available data, but in the 2016 presidential election, it appears that between 55 and 60 million of 138.8 million of those who

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15 Kimball, David C., and Brady Baybeck, “Are All Jurisdictions Equal? Size Disparity in Election Administration,” Election Law Journal, 2013, No. 12, pp. 130-145.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×
Image
FIGURE 1-1 George Caleb Bingham, American, 1811–1879; The County Election, 1852; oil on canvas; 38 × 52 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Bank of America 44:2001. Image courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.
Bingham’s painting depicts the chaotic and public nature of voting in the 19th century. Voters often approached an election official to vote by voice while politicians stood close by to watch and influence voters. Nearby, sometimes libations awaited those who had cast the “right vote.”

voted took advantage of these emerging approaches.16 However, in an era when smart phones have become ubiquitous and the Internet plays an integral part in most people’s lives, citizens must ask whether there are still further new innovative approaches to voting and consider what voting may look like in the future. Can, for example, safe and secure systems be developed to enable Internet or other remote voting in elections?

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16 Estimates of the number of voters who used various voting modes are imprecise because states do not uniformly report turnout by voting mode. These estimates are derived from two sources, respectively: U.S. Census Bureau, “Current Population Survey, Voting and Registration Supplement,” 2016 and U.S. Election Assistance Commission, “2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey” (EAVS), June 29, 2016.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×

EFFORTS TO IMPROVE THE ADMINISTRATION OF ELECTIONS

Over the past two decades, numerous initiatives have been launched to improve U.S. election systems, with activity especially intense after the 2000 presidential election. Two national bipartisan commissions, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform and the Commission on Federal Election Reform, followed a long-standing tradition of assembling panels of notable politicians, academics, and public intellectuals to study national crises and propose reforms. The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, which conducted its work in 2001, was chaired by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.17 The report of the Ford-Carter Commission, titled “To Assure Pride and Confidence in the Electoral Process,” issued several recommendations concerning voter registration, election systems, and election operations. These recommendations informed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) (see below) passed in 2002.18,19 The Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by President Carter and former-Secretary of State James Baker, conducted its work from 2004 to 2005. Its report, “Building Confidence in U.S. Elections,” looked beyond HAVA to provide recommendations related to voter registration, voter identification, improved security for elections (including voter-verifiable paper trails), and independent, professional election administration.20

Universities have contributed to sustained efforts to build a research-based infrastructure aimed at improving the administration of elections on a scientific and technical basis. Noting a “distressing lack of previous research” on voting that had led to the use of technologies that were “unreliable and inaccurate,” the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP) was established in December 2000 to develop voting systems standards and testing practices on a foundation of scientific and engineering research. Over time, VTP has created a body of research and facilitated new collaborations with state and local election administrators to improve voting systems and the voting experience.21 Other current university-based programs include the Center for Voting Technology Research at the Univer-

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17 See https://millercenter.org/issues-policy/governance/the-national-commission-on-federal-election-reform.

18 The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, “To Assure Pride and Confidence in the Electoral Process,” 2001, available at: http://web1.millercenter.org/commissions/comm_2001.pdf.

19 Help America Vote Act of 2002 (Pub.L. 107–252).

20 Commission on Federal Election Reform, “Building Confidence in U.S. Elections,” 2005, available at: https://www.eac.gov/assets/1/6/Exhibit%20M.PDF.

21 See https://vote.caltech.edu.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×

sity of Connecticut22 and the Voting System Technical Oversight Program at Ball State University.23

HAVA created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an independent bipartisan federal agency, to serve as a clearinghouse for election administration research and information and to disburse federal funds to states for the replacement of antiquated voting systems and the improvement of election administration; mandated that states create centralized, computerized voting registration systems; and required minimal standards for federal elections.24 In order to facilitate the modernization of election technologies, HAVA authorized a $3 billion appropriation for the purchase of new voting systems. HAVA also gave the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) a key role in improving election infrastructure through, for example, the development of voluntary voting system guidelines.

In March 2013, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration was established by President Obama to

identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to promote the efficient administration of elections in order to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots without undue delay, and to improve the experience of voters facing other obstacles in casting their ballots, such as members of the military, overseas voters, voters with disabilities, and voters with limited English proficiency.25

The commission’s resulting report, “The American Voting Experience,” warned of a new “impending crisis in voting technology” as the voting

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22 See https://voter.engr.uconn.edu/voter/.

23 See http://bowencenterforpublicaffairs.org/institutes/policy-research/election-admin/vstop.

24 The EAC’s “four commissioners are nominated by the President on recommendations from the majority and minority leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. No more than two commissioners may belong to the same political party. Once confirmed by the full Senate, commissioners may serve two consecutive terms.” See U.S. Election Assistance Commission, “About U.S. EAC: Commissioners,” available at: https://www.eac.gov/about/commissioners/.

There are currently two vacancies on the commission. Any action of the commission authorized by HAVA requires approval of at least three of its members. See HAVA 42 U.S.C. § 15328.

25 The White House, “Executive Order – Establishment of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration,” March 23, 2013, available at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/03/28/executive-order-establishment-presidential-commission-election-administr.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×

systems developed and installed in the early 2000s began to wear out and fail.26

At the state level, election administrators have been collaborating with academic researchers, NIST,27 and the EAC on experiments to improve ballot design; improve polling place accessibility; develop language assistance resources; expand the use of voting by mail; operate vote centers; improve voter experience in polling places; and conduct audits to test the security of voting systems.

While progress has been made since 2001, old problems persist and new problems emerge. U.S. elections are subject to aging equipment, targeting by external actors, a lack of sustained funding, and growing expectations that voting should be more accessible, convenient, and secure. The present issues and threat environment provide an extraordinary opportunity to marshal science and technology to create more resilient and adaptive election systems that are accessible, reliable, verifiable, and secure.

CHARGE TO THE COMMITTEE

In 2016, amid concerns about the state of U.S. election infrastructure, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provided support for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to consider the future of the voting in the United States. In response, the National Academies appointed an ad hoc committee, the Committee on the Future of Voting: Accessible, Reliable, Verifiable Technology, to:

  1. Document the current state of play in terms of technology, standards, and resources for voting technologies.
  2. Examine challenges arising out of the 2016 federal election.
  3. Evaluate advances in technology currently and soon-to-be available that can improve voting.
  4. Offer recommendations that provide a vision of voting that is easier, accessible, reliable, and verifiable.

In carrying out its charge, the committee was mindful of the context in

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26 Presidential Commission on Election Administration, “The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration,” January 2014, available at: https://www.eac.gov/assets/1/6/Amer-Voting-Exper-final-draft-01-09-14-508.pdf, p. 4.

The report offered recommendations to address this “impending crisis” but also voter registration, access to the polls, and polling place management.

27 NIST often carries out its work in collaboration with researchers, election administrators, vendors, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
×

which its study was conducted. The committee saw its work as an opportunity to address concerns about the “hard” (e.g., all components of election systems including hardware and software) and “soft” (e.g., education and training of election workforce, law, and governance) issues associated with elections and to address new threats that could erode confidence in the results of elections. The committee recommendations articulated in Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 address U.S. elections holistically, as the elections system is compromised of numerous component systems. Issues related to voting (e.g., voter identification laws, gerrymandering, foreign and domestic disinformation, campaign financing, etc.) not addressed in this report were considered by the committee as outside its charge.

Over the course of this study, the committee reviewed extensive background materials. It held six meetings where invited experts spoke to the committee about a range of topics including voter registration, voting accessibility, voting technologies and market impediments to technological innovation, cybersecurity, post-election audits, and the education and training of election workers. Agendas for the committee’s meetings appear in Appendix B. The committee did not access classified information but instead relied on information in the public domain, including state and federal government reports, published academic literature, testimony from congressional hearings, and presentations to the committee.

ORGANIZATION OF THE REPORT

Chapter 2 provides an overview of issues arising in the 2016 election. Chapter 3 provides an overview of U.S. election systems. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 describe challenges for election administration and provide the committee’s findings and recommendations. Chapter 7 offers the committee’s conclusions about securing the future of voting and offers concluding recommendations.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25120.
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During the 2016 presidential election, America’s election infrastructure was targeted by actors sponsored by the Russian government. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy examines the challenges arising out of the 2016 federal election, assesses current technology and standards for voting, and recommends steps that the federal government, state and local governments, election administrators, and vendors of voting technology should take to improve the security of election infrastructure. In doing so, the report provides a vision of voting that is more secure, accessible, reliable, and verifiable.

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