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Grade Your Voting Interface

I've criticized electronic voting machines in this space before for the usual reasons: their security issues, their unreliability, their lack of a genuine recount mechanism. But I also don't like the casual inattention to basic user-interface design principles I've seen in the WinVote e-voting terminals employed in my own Arlington voting precinct.

I complained about this five years ago:

But in highlighting the selected candidate's name in red, with a big X next to his or her name--instead of a checkmark or another symbol connoting approval--it made it look like I'd just voted *against* this person.

I thought such an easily fixed glitch would be corrected in time for next year's election, but the interface hasn't changed since. Fortunately, this year I'll be able to choose an optical-scan ballot that will also preserve a paper trail, and that's the option I'm going to take when I vote later this morning.

I'll post a few updates on my Twitter page, tagged with #votereport, about this year's experience (for a constantly updated collection of these voting-report "tweets" from across the nation, see the Twitter Vote Report site).

Then check back here later this morning for my critique of the new paper option. In the meantime, please add your own input: Post a review of your voting interface, electronic or otherwise, in the comments. Don't forget to note where you live.

Update: Well, that took a lot less time than I thought. I waited two to three minutes on line and, as promised, chose paper over plastic (er, silicon). Filling in ovals with a pencil gave me an instant SAT flashback, after which I handed the ballot to a volunteer who fed it into a large AccuVote-OS scanner. I have to admit that I still have some qualms about this setup--this machine (PDF) comes from Premier Election Systems, the former Diebold subsidiary that many people think represents the worst aspects of electronic voting--but at least there's a paper trail. And I trust the local government doing the counting.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 4, 2008; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , The business we have chosen  
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I noticed the same thing this morning but was not mislead by it. I agree that substituing a check mark for the X could eliminate the potential for confusion.

That said, I've lived in Arlington since 1970 and have come to believe that many in the County government is not very sensitive to individual complaints of almost any kind. It seems to take a groundswell of concern before there is any action in response to even modest suggestions such as the one you have raised.

At the same time, I have received very responsive service as long as I am not asking for any changes to business as usual.

Posted by: Arlington4 | November 4, 2008 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Hmmm, I cannot edit the grammatical error in my post above that resulted from qualifying my remark about the Arlington Government. Am I missing something about this user interface? :)

Posted by: Arlington4 | November 4, 2008 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Today, I had the choice to use a paper ballot (with optical scanning) or an electronic voting station. This was in Fairfax County.

It seemed that the large majority were using the paper ballots.

Posted by: jerryravens | November 4, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Orange County North Carolina, paper ballot with optical scan machine. I actually did it two weeks ago, and it was pretty straightforward. And I have some confidence that it can be re-counted accurately if the need be.

Posted by: tegularius | November 4, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I voted in Arlington last week and had the choice for electronic and paper. I also went with the paper, but mine was not ovals. I had 2 halves of an arrow with the line segment missing in the middle next to each choice. I had to draw the line to connect the two halves next to the choice I wanted. I thought oh this should be pretty reliable, but I was quickly informed that I must make sure my pencil is sharpened and if the line is too wide it would not be read properly and get rejected by the scanner. GEEZ. I want to know why no one can make a system that doesn't have so many possibilities for possible failures.

So I did my line connecting making sure I didn't retrace over and just did it one single line that wasn't too thick or too thin. Then when I was done I was told to feed it into the scanner. I felt good about my paper vote until I saw that I was feeding it into a Sequoia scanner....hopefully they are better than their E-vote machines...

Posted by: adbspam | November 4, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm in Loudoun County, and voted at about 10:30 this morning. The line was sizable, but things moved along reasonably well; the whole business took about half an hour.

We also had the choice of paper (optical scan) ballots or E-voting. I used paper, and the actual voting probably took me less than 60 seconds. There was a brief wait if you wanted one of the little "cubicle desk" places to mark your ballot; but I asked if I could just sit at the table (this was in a school lunchroom) and was told that was fine. I've used the voting machines in the past, and would *never* choose them if paper were an option.

While I was in line, I tried to keep track of how many people made each choice. From my unscientific survay, I would say at least 75% of voters chose paper.

Posted by: richg74 | November 4, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

For those of you who used paper ballots because you thought that the electronic voting machines would not adequately record their vote, what makes you think that a machine reading and presumably recording blackened areas on your paper ballot will do any better job? Properly designed programs can read screen touches just as accurately as a paper ballot and, if desired, could produce a paper audit trail.

Posted by: rnielson | November 5, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

In the old days, when my husband reported elections done on mechanical voting machines, the results were available 45 minutes after the polls closed - read off the backs of the machines and hand tallied. These days I am a poll worker in Maryland where we are using touch screens for the last time. Votes must be printed out from each machine but are still handwritten to add up on a tally sheet. That process had not begun when I left 90 minutes after the polls had closed Tuesday evening. Progress seems to have slowed us down.

Posted by: blueheron5 | November 6, 2008 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I voted in Prince William County. I found that using the rubbery eraser on the pencil that was provided helped me a lot. I also noticed that the machine printed out. "Their receipt", and that the calibration results were posted for all of us to see. I was very satisfied with the machines that were used in my precinct.

Posted by: mikegautier | November 9, 2008 12:01 PM | Report abuse

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