XX.2 March + April 2013
Page: 62
Digital Citation


Whitney Quesenbery

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Early on the morning of November 7, 2012, President Obama claimed victory in the U.S. presidential election. In the usual thanks to "every American who participated in this election," he also mentioned the hanging chads of 2012—long lines waiting to vote—saying, "By the way, we have to fix that" [1]. Why, after 12 years of new laws, new voting systems, and new election procedures, are we still talking about "fixing" elections?

First, U.S. elections are a massive system, both centralized around the presidential election cycle and local, controlled by more than 3,000 counties and even more municipalities. Systems like that are slow to change. Elections are deeply embedded in the social and political culture of a democracy: the habits of voters, the conduct of political campaigns, and the processes of election administration. These deep habits make elections resistant to change. Elections are also episodic, with only a few events each year, so even slow changes can be seen as disruptive. In New York, for example, 50-year-old mechanical-lever voting machines were replaced in 2010 after several years of deliberation, but in 2012 the new paper ballots are still promoted as the "new way" to vote [2].

This isn't a new story to UX designers and researchers, who work in a context of rapid social and technological change. Big systems don't transform by themselves, especially when there are divergent political views making it hard to identify clear organizational goals. Instead, old designs are forced onto new technology, and processes are adapted instead of being redesigned: The result is rarely a good user experience.

Elections—especially decentralized U.S. elections—are more complex than they look. They are a multi-channel service, built on a patchwork of technologies, from voter registration databases to ballot-counting systems. Most of all, they are a human ecosystem, of voters, candidates, election staff, volunteer poll workers, political advocates, and journalists.

  • Voters include nearly all adult citizens, from avid voters to the less engaged, so the procedures and systems must be usable and accessible for this broad audience.
  • Officials and poll workers need clear, usable systems and procedures, despite often arcane and confusing laws.
  • To create confidence in the results, elections must be run in a transparent manner, while preserving the secret ballot.
  • We need to be able to audit elections, but also to count ballots quickly, while keeping elections affordable even for small districts.

Many of the current debates in elections are really a clash between contradictory, but equally important, requirements. And many of the efforts to fix elections have focused on one aspect, without addressing the entire system, including all of the human, political, and technology aspects. Along the way, even the most positive changes in elections have produced unintended consequences.

back to top  The Return to Paper

When the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed in 2002, it included funds to allow states to replace antiquated voting systems like the mechanical-lever systems and punch cards. The goal was to move away from paper and mechanical ballots to electronic ballots, which would be faster and more accurate, and would prevent some types of errors, such as when voters "overvote" by selecting more candidates than allowed. HAVA also required that every polling place have a voting system that would allow people with disabilities—including the blind—to vote independently. Computer-based systems, known as DREs (for direct recording electronic), can incorporate assistance such as enlargeable text and audio ballots with tactile switches.

However, the original DREs did not have any form of paper trail, storing votes only in memory. Computer scientists pointed out that there is no way to be sure they are not malfunctioning due to either defects or hacking, because ballots are anonymous. Only when voters can review the ballot actually cast can they be sure their vote is being cast as they intend. As a result, states began switching back from the electronic devices that were presented as the solution to paper ballots. According to Verified Voting (www.verifiedvoting.org), in 2012, only six states voted on entirely computerized ballots, while 17 used only paper (the rest have a mix of systems). The most common accessible voting systems are "ballot marking devices," in which voters interact with the ballot through a computer, which then prints a paper ballot for them.

This positive achievement for election confidence is offset by the resulting problems in accessibility and usability. The switch back to paper is often a step backward for people with print disabilities, as it forces them into using an alternative accessible voting system. As in so many other situations (think: text-only pages), the reality is a separate and unequal voting experience. This can be true even when everyone in an election district uses the same DRE system. Noel Runyan, a blind elections advocate, has documented his own DRE voting experience since 2004 and says poll workers have been successful only twice in setting up the audio voting mode without assistance [3]. Even when poll workers are prepared, the systems don't always cooperate. Ultimately, the combination of poorly designed systems and poorly trained poll workers discourages all kinds of voters from participating at the polling place.

Another consequence of the shift to paper ballots has been a proliferation of usability problems caused by poor design and virtually no usability evaluation. Some of these design flaws are serious enough to potentially change the results of an election. Two reports by the Brennan Center for Justice, Better Ballots and Better Design, Better Elections, showed that tens or hundreds of thousands of votes are lost or miscast in every election year as a result of poorly designed ballots, and that the risk is greater for older voters, new voters, and low-income voters [4].

What is particularly sad about this is that there is no reason for it. We have the knowledge and skills to create ballots that work. The federal agency for elections, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), worked with AIGA's Design for Democracy project to create tested, usable ballot-design templates (bureaucratically named Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections; www.eac.gov). Local election departments that have adopted the templates have been effective in helping voters mark their ballots as they intend.

back to top  Innovative Work on Verifying Election Results

There is a benefit to all this paper: to be able to audit and recount an election. As the Cuyahoga (Ohio) Election Audits site (http://cuyahogaelectionaudits.com/) points out, both pre- and post-election audits should be a routine part of election administration. Their goal is not only to ensure an accurate count, but also to detect election fraud or other procedural problems, such as simply not including all of the ballots in the totals. Audits are mandated for close elections in many jurisdictions. Unfortunately, audits are also expensive and time-consuming, so they have been the topic of a lot of debate and subsequent recommendations.

When the Brennan Center examined overvotes on New York's paper ballots in the 2010 elections, they found a chilling pattern: "Polling places with high concentrations of poor residents and language minorities had the highest overvote rates" [5]. In the Bronx, almost one-third of the election districts had overvote rates higher than 1 percent (compared with rates of less than 0.25 percent in other places), reaching "staggeringly high" rates of as many as 20 percent of the votes cast in one polling place. Even more astonishing, officials did not investigate until May 2012 (after running another election), when they discovered that it was not voter error: The ballot-scanning systems were misreading the ballots [6]. The lesson here is that auditable paper records are valuable only if they are used.

One of the more exciting developments is a concept called risk-limiting audits, developed by Philip B. Stark and Mark Lindeman. Instead of a simple formula such as "Audit a random sample of 5 percent of all ballots" or "Audit an election when the margin of victory is less than 1 percent," risk-limiting audits take into account the number of votes cast, the margin of victory, and the desired confidence level to audit a very small number of ballots to determine whether a full recount would lead to a different outcome. It's received a lot of attention as an economical way to increase confidence in elections, and has had a successful pilot in California [7].

back to top  More Flexibility, More Convenience

As our lives have become more mobile, we expect to do more things wherever and whenever we like. Voting is no exception. The past decade has seen an enormous rise in what's known as "convenience voting"—ways to vote outside of the traditional election-day polling place. They include:

  • Vote by mail. Oregon and Washington elections are conducted by mail, with ballots mailed to registered voters. (Voting centers at election offices are used as polling places for accessible voting.)
  • Absentee voting. This form of voting by mail used to be reserved for those with approved excuses, such as travel or disability. In a growing trend, many states now allow "no excuse" absentee voting, so anyone can choose this method.
  • Early voting. In 32 states, any qualified voter may cast a ballot, in person, during a number of days before Election Day. All but 15 states offer either early voting, absentee voting, or both.
  • Military and overseas voting. The 2009 MOVE Act made it easier for overseas voters to participate by requiring that voter registration and absentee ballots be available electronically. Voters mail the completed ballots to the state in which they claim U.S. residence.

Some counties, including Bernalillo County in New Mexico, have moved to voting centers instead of neighborhood polling places. In exchange for fewer locations, voters can vote at any of them, no matter where they live in the county. This allows more flexibility, such as going to vote during the day at a location near work.

Analysis of census data shows that although people with disabilities still vote at a lower rate than those without disabilities, this gap is narrowing, from 7 percentage points in 2008 to a 3 percent gap in 2010 [8]. Convenience voting is especially helpful for voters with disabilities, who choose it in larger numbers than voters without disabilities. This makes sense when you consider the challenges of traveling to an unfamiliar location and the number of polling places that are not fully accessible. A vicious circle can result, with polling places and voting systems becoming even less accessible as voters with disabilities become less common—and less visible in the political process.

Another issue is that absentee and mail-in ballots are on paper, making independent voting impossible for those with print disabilities. Election departments, including those of Denver, Miami, and Oregon, have programs that take a virtual polling place with accessible systems to voters in assisted-living facilities or to those who cannot travel to a voting center for any other reason. Online systems, like the ones for overseas voters that print a marked ballot, could also help people cast an absentee ballot more accurately and accessibly.

back to top  Long Lines and Other Disasters

And this brings us to the big issues of 2012: Superstorm Sandy and long lines.

There is not much to say about the long lines that many voters experienced, especially in urban areas. The worst cases were in Florida, where voters waited in line for up to seven hours. But two- to three-hour waits were common, with polling places closing late to allow everyone to vote. Long lines are simply the result of a failure to estimate the numbers of voters or the timing of when they would arrive at the polling place, and to provide enough capacity to handle the crowds. Look for a lot of discussion this year about solutions to this problem, such as adding extra poll workers in the evenings or increasing options for early voting.

Superstorm Sandy tested the resilience and flexibility of election officials, especially in New York and New Jersey, where many polling places were still without electricity... or washed away in the storm. New Jersey ordered all county offices to stay open through the weekend and the Monday before the election so that voters could come in, apply for an absentee ballot, and cast it on the spot. Both New York and New Jersey took advantage of provisional ballots, normally used when a voter's name cannot be found in the list of registered voters. They allowed displaced voters to cast a provisional ballot anywhere in the state, with their ballots sent to their own county to be counted. This was problem-solving improvisation at its best, using an existing voting method to allow people to vote in an emergency.

Officials also allowed voters to return their ballots by email and fax. Election departments had few procedures to handle this option; election advocates raised concerns about security. As intriguing as these options are, they are probably not ready for prime time.

back to top  How Do We 'Fix This'?

One of the recurring themes is that you can't fix just one aspect of elections. Even the best new voting systems, for example, will not live up to their potential if voters don't understand them and poll workers don't know how to use them on Election Day. It's tempting to say that the whole problem should be turned over to UX designers, but that's not the right answer, either. Everyone who has a stake in elections should have a place at the design table.

A few projects are trying to open up the process and invite broader participation:

  • In Los Angeles County, Dean Logan started the Voting System Assessment Project (VSAP) to investigate a new voting system for the largest jurisdiction in the U.S. to "ensure the 'people' element is well balanced with those of 'technology' and 'regulations'" [9].
  • In Travis County, Texas, a similar project to define a new voting system is under way under Dana Debeauvoir's leadership.
  • Oregon and Washington states have used AIGA Election Design Fellows to bring design and usability expertise to improve their election forms, ballots, and other materials.
  • The ITIF Accessible Voting Technology Initiative, funded by the EAC, ran a series of design workshops, bringing together election officials, voting system designers, accessibility advocates, and designers to work on removing barriers to voting. Several of the concepts that emerged led to research collaborations currently in progress. One proposed that ballots could be marked anywhere, on any device, and then brought to a polling place to be cast, using QR codes to count them efficiently, combining the best aspects of convenience voting with the social "ceremony" (and security) of voting in a polling place [10, 11].
  • OpenIDEO ran an online design challenge, inviting more than 800 people from around the world to consider new ideas for how to design an accessible election experience for everyone [12]. Many of the concepts focused on how to bring elections to voters, prefiguring a program in Iowa, where citizens could request that election officials staff a temporary pop-up polling site at local shops and events during early voting [13].
  • Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent summarized existing research on election design and conducted "flash testing" events, mobilizing UX professionals around the country to gather data on how voters interact with ballots and other election materials [14].

All of these projects are trying to envision what elections might be like if we "fixed that." They are asking challenging questions about what has to change in how we think about elections. Maybe we need to rethink how we distribute, mark, and cast ballots so that we can avoid long lines while still having secure, auditable elections. Maybe designing ballots that even people with low literacy can understand, or providing a good voting experience with audio or assistive technology, will make elections a better experience for everyone. Most of all, we need to think about elections as a multidisciplinary problem and bring election, technology, and security experts together with design, usability, and accessibility experts, so that all of the requirements are considered together.

back to top  References

1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/11/07/remarks-president-election-night

2. http://www.votethenewwayny.com/

3. Noel Ruyan's voting experiences: http://www.openideo.com/open/voting/inspiration/accessible-voting-experiences

4. Better Ballots (2008) and Better Design, Better Elections (2012). The Brennan Center; http://www.usabilityinciviclife.org/better-design-better-elections/

5. Design Deficiencies and Lost. The Brennan Center, 2011; http://www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/design_deficiencies_and_lost_votes/ (or http://ow.ly/fK5CC)

6. NY Daily News Editorial. Voters be damned. (February 27, 2012); http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-02-27/news/31105827_1_miscounted-votes-ovals-ballots (or http://ow.ly/fK5rQ)

7. Farivar, C. Saving throw: Securing democracy with stats, spreadsheets, and 10-sided dice. Ars Technica (July 24, 2012); http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/07/saving-american-elections-with-10-sided-dice-one-stats-profs-quest/ (or http://ow.ly/fK5pR)

8. Hall, T. and Alvarez, R.M. Defining the Barriers to Political Participation for Individuals with Disablilities. 2012; http://elections.itif.org/reports/AVTI-001-Hall-Alvarez-2012.pdf

9. Voting System Assessment Project – Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk; http://www.lavote.net/voter/vsap/

10. Accessible Election Design Workshop – ITIF Accessible Voting Technology Initiative; http://elections.itif.org/projects/design-workshops/

11. 50 Ideas for More Accessible Elections: #26: Mark ballots anywhere; http://www.openideo.com/open/voting/realisation/50-ideas-for-accessible-elections (or http://ow.ly/fK7B8)

12. OpenIDEO Accessible Election Design Innovation Challenge; http://www.openideo.com/open/voting/brief.html

13. Dirks, S. Vote while you shop: 'Pop-up' poll sites sweep Iowa. NPR; http://www.wbur.org/npr/163560324/vote-while-you-shop-pop-up-poll-sites-sweep-iowa or http://ow.ly/fK5su

14. Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent; http://civicdesigning.org/fieldguides/

back to top  Author

Whitney Quesenbery combines an obsession with clear communication with her work bringing user research insights to designing products where people matter. She is passionate about Usability in Civic Life. Quesenbery has worked with election officials on ballots and other election materials and is a co-author of two influential reports that show just how much design matters in elections.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Compare a current New York ballot with a design concept for how it could be designed following the EAC templates. This work is part of an effort to revise New York State election law to allow better design to make ballots easier to read, easier to use, and reduce voter errors. A version of this ballot is available at Usability in Civic Life (http://www.usabilityinciviclife.org/a-better-ballot-for-ny/). Design concept by Drew Davies, Oxide Design/AIGA Design for Democracy

UF2Figure. There are usability problems with electronic ballots, too. In 2006, the 13th Congressional District race was won by just 369 votes. On the Sarasota County ballot, it shared the screen with the governor's race, and 13 percent of voters (more than 18,000) skipped it. In neighboring Charlotte County, it was on its own screen; only 2.5 percent skipped the race. Trying to save voters one click may have changed the results of the election.

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