Usability in Civic Life: Voting and Usability

The 2006 Sarasota County, Florida Congressional Election

Image of the ballot screen.In the November 7, 2006 election, an unexpectedly large number of people in Sarasota, Florida skipped the congressional election. Where other races, for Senate and Governor had undervote of 1.2-1.4%, the race for U.S. Representative had an undervote of 14.9%.

Advocates for voter-verifiable paper audit trails (VVPATs) immediately pointed out that we will never really know what happened, because the county in question, Sarasota, used iVotronic voting systems, without a paper trail.

Was it malicious code, a bug in the software or ballot layout usability problems? (See an enlarged image of the ballot).

A well-publicized panel of experts examined the machines and other election materials but were unable to find either malicious code or any evidence of a software malfunction. Unfortunately, no experts in usability or human factors were part of the panel, so, although computer science experts begrudgingly suggest that "ballot layout now seems the most likely explanation for the undervote," they also raise objections about a lack of proof.

Usability experts are more convinced. Jakob Nielsen opened an essay with the clear position that, "A poorly designed ballot hit Florida again." (Banner Blindness in Ballot Design - Jakob Nielsen, Feb. 24, 2007). So did Sarah Swierenga in a presentation at the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference held by California State University, Northridge (CSUN 2007)

Her recommendations included:

  • Don't assume that the voters are familiar with technology
  • Headings and instructions should be active voice, in simple, declarative sentences, using plain language
  • There should be one race per page
  • Make sure there is contrast between backgrounds and text



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