September 1, 2006 Human-factors engineers, along with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a rigorous, standardized test for all electronic voting machines -- whose error rate is currently estimated at about 5 percent. The NIST test has people evaluate how easy a voting machine is to use and its accuracy at recording a voter's preferences
ASHBURN, Va. -- Does your vote really count? The topic of a reliable voting system has sparked some heated debates. Now, new electronic voting machines are unveiled, tested and graded.
"We know that there are problems when people try to use voting machines," says Bill Killam, a human factors engineer at Ashburn, Virginia-based User Centered Design, Inc. "In some cases, people cast votes they didn't intend."
Many outdated paper ballots are being replaced by new, electronic voting machines ... But there are many different systems, each with a unique design, set of instructions, buttons -- and problems. Now, human-factors engineers like Killam, along with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a rigorous, standardized test for all machines.
Killam says, "In the United States there are a number of vendors who produce voting machines, and so one of the questions is, 'If there's multiple designs, how does each one perform in the same test?'"
The NIST test has people evaluate how easy a voting machine is to use. Then, its accuracy and overall performance are rated. The information is then compiled to see how each machine measures up. Forty states now require machines to pass the NIST test before being used in an election.
"The real goal of this whole effort is to make sure that these machines work as people expect them to and that we're not producing machines for the marketplace that cause problems," Killam says.
Experts estimate about a 5 percent error rate in some machines currently in use, but as the ballot becomes more complicated and more names are added, it's likely to be much higher than that.
Results from previously tested voting machines are pending approval from the government before they can be released to the public.
BACKGROUND: A key component of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 is to ensure that it is possible for all U.S. citizens to exercise their right to vote privately and independently. This breaks down into two parts: accessibility and usability. A Virginia-based company called User-Centered Design is working to demonstrate that it is possible to reliably measure the usability of voting machines, then the results can be compared to predetermined criteria. Its findings could one day have a major impact on how we vote.
THE ISSUES: Voter language and disabilities may prevent citizens from voting, as well as confusion when encountering unfamiliar electronic ballot machines. But aside from special issues, voting machines could be standardized so that the each machine's performance could be measured in order to ensure they provide correct vote tallies. Can the U.S. population learn and use a given system without making errors? And how can this be determined? Research can scientifically test these usability and performance issues to make sure the results are reliable and valid.
HOW WE VOTE: There have been many different kinds of voting systems used in the United States, and the approach varies from state to state, sometimes from district to district. With paper ballot systems, voters record their choices in private by marking the boxes next to the candidate they select and dropping the ballot into a sealed ballot box, which are then counted by hand. Mechanical voting machines connect each lever in an array to a specific candidate, and the voter pulls down selected levers to indicate his or her choice. Each lever is connected to a counter wheel to indicate the number of votes cast for each candidate. With punchcard systems, voters punch holes in cards to indicate their choices. The cards can be counted by hand or fed into a vote-counting device. Optical scan systems are similar to the way standardized tests are conducted: voters fill in ovals next to their choices with a pencil, and the cards are fed into a computer counting device that selects the darkest mark to count as a vote. The most recent type of system is direct recording electronic systems, an updated version of the old mechanical lever systems. The voter uses a computer touch-screen to indicate his or her choices which are electronically stored before being counted.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.