“User Error” is a voting machine problem

Last weekend, frightened emails circulated around Travis County. At least one voter tried to select a straight-party Democratic ticket. When proofing the ballot, George Bush was selected for President.
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and the local democratic party were quick to spread the word that this was “human error and was not a machine malfunction.”
They’re doing the right thing to get the word out and ask voters to proof their ballots. But they’re missing the point about voting system design. User errors are symptoms of design flaws.
The way it happens is this. “After pressing ENTER after marking Straight Democrat, some voters inadvertently turn the SELECT wheel one click through the ballot while meaning to go to the final “PROOF” page. If you hit enter at that point, your cursor is over the first candidate on the ballot: Bush/Cheney.”
For the few steps, the user follows a pattern to make selections, and suddenly, the pattern changes. If the user doesn’t notice they change, they accidentally select the wrong candidate.
Like the infamous “butterfly ballot” in Florida, this is a design flaw with the user interface.
These types of design flaws can be uncovered with usability testing. There are well-known techniques for detecting and fixing problems in the user interface that lead users to make mistakes.
But we don’t do usability testing in Travis County. Before elections, the county does “logic and accuracy testing” to prove that the voting system generates the right results when voters make valid selection. The county puts out press releases explaining how this testing proves that the voting system is reliable.
But we don’t test what happens when voters make mistakes. Usability testing is critical for all sorts of systems — particularly systems where user choices have serious consequences like voting.
The lack of usability testing — and the lack of rigorous security testing — show that voting administration hasn’t yet caught up to the responsibility of electronic voting.

6 thoughts on ““User Error” is a voting machine problem”

  1. Here’s an informal usability critique that someone did: http://www.kevcom.com/hart/
    What’s strange is the amount of control that local election boards have over the design of the ballot. And the screen design is quite primitive for this day and age.

  2. Adina, I was so glad to find your review of the Poisonwood Bible. I bought the book a few years ago, but never read it. It sat in a stack of wonderful reads that I always meant to get to some day. That some day came when I had an accident back in August. I’ve been laid up for a few months now, and the silver lining has been having nothing but time, and the books that have filled it. This particular chronicle was one of the most disturbing and yet most moving I’ve ever consumed. I simply couldn’t put it down. Barbara Kingsolver did a marvellous job of drawing you into the lives of these women and making them real. Glad to see your links to a few follow-up reads. I’m on the hunt for more, and appreciate your judgement. — Keeping a warm thought, Sue.

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