Are design issues to blame for e-vote 'flipping'?

Vendors say no, but critics say e-voting devices aren't designed for most voters

"You have usability testing for all kinds of [consumer] devices," Coney said. "The people who sell [consumer goods] want to make sure that people can use them and use them easily...so they don't buy a competing product."

With e-voting machines, that's not the case, she said. "There's a disconnect between the people who make the voting systems and the voters themselves" during the initial purchasing decisions by state and local government agencies, she said. "There were no standards in place. There was no usability testing required [although vendors] may have done some on their own."

Elections officials didn't seek such testing because they had limited budgets, wanted equipment that they could afford and had little time to dig into issues like usability, Coney said. "The issue for them was what fits the budget," she said. "A lot of the usability issues were just 'throw the voters in there and let them be the beta testers."

What has happened, she said, is that the vendors have simply blamed voters and poll workers for problems that arise. "That's been the generic scapegoat...from the beginning of these machines being used."

The sensitivity issue is a prime problem, she said, because of the disparity between the needs of physically-impaired voters and others. "The way usability works, you don't make the voter conform to the machines. You build the machines to work the way the user uses it..., to fit whatever a typical voter might do in that environment."

"The existing systems are made hyper-sensitive for the few voters with extreme physical limitations, so then people without physical limitations get all these flaky responses from the machines," Coney said.

What is surprising about touch-screen problems, Coney said, is that the technology has been seemingly proven in other industries. "They should know how to do this," she said. "This is a technology interface that you find at kiosks, you find at banks, that you find all over the place, and they're not messing up. So why is this happening?"

What's required, she said, is mandatory usability testing for e-voting machines. "It's the only way you're going to know" what the problems might be. To ensure that that happens, she said, federal funding should be allocated. "Otherwise, it's not going to happen," she said. "And until we do serious research-and-development, you know, go-to-the-moon-level R&D...it won't improve," she said. "Nobody's ever tried to serve the whole diverse population of voters" with such machines. "This is a neat challenge in and of itself."

Ellen Theisen, the founder of VotersUnite.org, an e-voting watchdog group, said that vendors only want to talk about calibration when there are clear design flaws. One problem has been that when machines are tested by independent groups, they only test one or two machines, which is inadequate, she said.

"I'm not convinced that there aren't serious design flaws in the software, too," Theisen said. "That is not checked, either."

Vote flipping has also occurred in eSlate machines, she said, which use software but not touch-screens. Whatever the design, "when we see [vote-flipping] happen over and over and over, there's some problem," she said. "If it's a poor user interface, there's a problem."

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Todd R. Weiss

Computerworld (US)

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