Opinion: Will your vote count tomorrow?

What's intuitive and simple for a system designer isn't necessarily easy and obvious for a cross-section of system users. Which brings us to tomorrow's election.

Even if you believe that voting machines are tamperproof and that any "honest" computer tabulation errors won't affect the final results (making you more of an optimist than I am), there's another concern: Are systems easy enough to use so that anyone -- and I mean anyone -- can operate them properly? How about harried parents in a hurry or people who are intimidated by technology?

In 2000, the answer was no. Florida's hanging chads showed that even a simple punch-card system can be poorly designed, since many voters didn't push their choices all the way through.

Even worse was the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, where thousands of votes were cast erroneously because of a confusing design. The irony is that the county decided on a two-page ballot design to make it easier for elderly voters by providing enough space for larger print. However, thousands ended up selecting more than one candidate for president because they couldn't tell where the choices lined up.

Had there been pre-election user-interface tests with random voters, feedback may have prompted election officials to redesign the ballot.

How important would that have been? After the election, The Palm Beach Post concluded that Al Gore lost more than 6,600 votes in the county because of voters who chose both Gore and Pat Buchanan for president. Official election results say George W. Bush won Florida -- and thus the presidency -- by just 537 votes.

Lesson: Any system should undergo rigorous testing by a cross-section of people who are likely to use it -- not only by the people involved in designing it.

That's especially true when the system involved is electronic.

Already, in early voting this year, there have been several complaints that touch screens inaccurately recorded votes. Two West Virginia voters told Computerworld that they touched the screen for one candidate but the machine switched the selection to another.

An election official speculated that the problem could be caused by unintentionally rolling a finger across the screen. In any case, the machines were recalibrated, and it appears that no more voters complained there. However, whether the problem was malfunctioning machines or user error, it's a serious issue if voters are unable to easily register their intent.

It's not OK to blame user error. If a task isn't as easy as filling in circles on a paper ballot, it's time to re-examine the system.

The key here is "easy." The Jackson Daily Progress in Texas recently published instructions for Cherokee County's Hart InterCivic touch-screen systems. They included multiple steps, like selecting a language, entering a four-digit access code, moving a wheel to highlight a choice, selecting "enter," then reviewing a ballot summary screen, then. ... Sorry, but you shouldn't need an instruction sheet to cast a vote.

So how will we know if there are problems with voting systems tomorrow? In many other parts of the world, experts consider a difference between exit polls and announced results a strong signal that something is amiss. (Unlike pre-election polling, exit polls don't ask people their opinions or how they expect to vote; they ask actual voters which candidate they picked.)

In Florida in 2000, exit polls calling the state for the Democrats may very well have accurately measured that a majority of voters thought they cast their votes for Gore.

Discrepancies between exit polls and results may not be able to determine whether the issue is malicious hacking, honest tabulation errors, system malfunctions or users selecting a different candidate than they intended due to poor system design. But imperfect as such post-election comparisons may be, they're as close to an independent nationwide system audit as we're likely to get for the 2008 results.

Sharon Machlis is the managing editor of Computerworld.com. You can reach her at sharon_machlis@computerworld.com.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon