On Usability Problems with Voting Machines
04 Nov 2008

On Usability Problems with Voting Machines

04 Nov 2008

Today is the big day, and no matter for whom or what you are voting on November 4th, you not only want your vote counted, but you also want it counted correctly. In the spirit of fair elections with a twist of usability geekiness, we at Montparnas compiled a few resources where you can learn more about usability of voting machines.

Usability in Civic Life: Voting and Usability Project

The Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) has been running a great project that seeks to evangelize good usability in voting machines. It’s one thing when it’s difficult for a user to add an item to a shopping cart, but it’s a whole different ballgame when votes that determine a presidential election are miscounted or not counted at all. Usability in voting machines is perhaps the most important application of the usability engineering field. The UPA writes on their site

UPA supports efforts to improve the usability of elections.

Through education, advocacy, and participation in standards and design projects, we focus on people within the election process.

We believe that usability and the voting experience should be the starting point for the design of any voting system, and are the key to creating ease of use, efficiency and confidence in democratic elections worldwide.

The UPA has a ton of great resources on their site, and I encourage you to check them out.

Voting for Usability: Background on the Issues

Whitney Quesenbery, who was once appointed to a committee for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, has an absolutely incredible write-up about the issue of voting machine usability. She provides an incredibly thorough overview as well as background of the problem¬† and explains why “voting is the ultimate usability problem.”

The system is used infrequently, and the interface is never exactly the same. There are different candidates, different offices, and even the relative position of the political parties changes from time to time. To top this off, the context of use is stressful. Users have only one chance to get it right, and are working in an unfamiliar environment… The results matter.

Are Design Issues to Blame for Vote ‘Flipping’ in Touch-Screen Machines?

Computerworld reports on usability problems with electronic voting machines in an extensive article. One of the more appalling quotes from the article explains how the length of a voter’s fingernails–yes, I said fingernails–can produce errand votes using touch screen voting machines. The articles surveys the four most common voting machines and looks at how they were design, how they were tested, and how they compare.

Poor Touchscreen Design Causing Voting Errors

Kevin Arthur at TouchUsability has a great little write up about how poor interaction design of touch screen electronic voting machines is causing problems in early voting. He also notes that touch-screen input interfaces may not be the best input method for voting machines. As we wrote in a previous post, touch screens cause accessibility issues for some physically impaired individuals. Kevin also links to some other great resources and interesting reading on the issue.

Diebold Touchscreen Voting Machine – Not Fit for Purpose?

Harry Brignull of 90 Percent of Everything speaks his mind about the poor usability of the Diebold touchscreen voting machines.  He points out, rightly, that lack of funding is a poor excuse for releasing such faulty devices into something so important as the presidential election.

Check out the video below, and you will see what he means.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Q9NSVUu8nk

Oprah Sees Own Vote Being Dropped by Voting Machine

Whether layperson or international television star, your vote may not be recorded. Oprah Winfrey explains how her vote was not recorded when she went to vote. (Skip to 2:30 of the video.)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tbkAGvJsEI

User Interfaces, Usability, and Trust in Electronic Voting: Let’s Fix This

Matt Woodward writes a very detailed account of his experience voting, during this past primary, on an electronic voting machine. In particular, he writes in great detail about trust issues that he was experiencing during the process.

Some Academic Work Related to Usability of Voting Machines

The Usability of Electronic Voting Machines and How Votes Can Be Changed

Sarah P. Evert’s of Rice University argues in her Ph.D. thesis that empirical data indicates that “there are not differences between [direct electronic systems] and older methods in efficiency and effectiveness.” She also writes that “[results] that over 60% of voters do not notice is their votes as shown on the review screen are different than how they were selected.” It’s not a light read, but it’s a fascinating one.

A Laboratory Evaluation of Six Electronic Voting Machines

A very informative presentation that puts forth the findings of a study aimed at identifying usability challenges associated with currently available voting machines. The sample size for their study included roughly 1500 participants and sought to survey users about such things as how easy to use participants found various machines, how easy it was for them to correct their mistakes, and so on. The results were mostly favorable but showed room for improvement.

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