A Timely Article on Voting Machines

With the U.S. election only a week away, I bring you a tale of warning from Finland.

Today, the Ministry of Justice revealed that due to a usability issue, voting was prematurely aborted for 232 voters. The pilot system was in use in three municipalities; this amounts to about 2 per cent of the electoral roll. Seats in the municipal assemblies are often determined by margins of only a couple of votes.

It seems that the system required the voter to insert a smart card to identify the voter, type in their selected candidate number, then press “ok”, check the candidate details on the screen, and then press “ok” again. Some voters did not press “ok” for the second time, but instead removed their smart card from the voting terminal prematurely, causing their ballots not to be cast.

A designer might negate the problems of 2% of users for some systems, but voting machines should be held to to a higher standard. You might not catch 2% with Nielsen’s standard 4-6 users testing the system (or “none” as I suspect was true of the Finnish system.) If you want to judge for yourself, a flash demo of the system is available here. They apparently enter a number code for a candidate.

Input devices were also at the forefront in Finland:

[Added 29th Oct:] There has now been at least one report of touchscreen issues. A voter had repeatedly tried to click on “ok”, but either due to system lag or touchscreen sensitivity problems, it took “minutes” to get the button press registered. If hit by this type of problem, the voters may well have thought that the ballot casting process had completed.

Finding sources for this post was difficult, as most of the sites were in non-translatable Finnish, a language not supported by Google or Babelfish. I would especially like to know the age of the touchs screen user and if s/he had any defining characteristics that might relate to the difficulty with the screen.

2% may not sound like much, unless you’re in the 2%. I suppose the most comforting knowledge is that usability issues probably won’t affect one party more than the other.

2 thoughts on “A Timely Article on Voting Machines”

  1. One problem I remember reading about eVoting machines is that voting errors are factored into the design of the system. Think of it as a tolerance factor. Specifically, developers know that votes will be dropped, and they assume that those dropped votes at an error rate of say, 4%, are evenly distributed across all candidates. Their rationale is that the even distribution will not really affect the outcome of the race – unless it is a very close race. The problem with that kind of developer apathy is that not everyone uses the same machine across the country so there is no even distribution of errors. Oh and wasn’t last race decided on about 500 votes?

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