Volume 5, Issue 3 
September 2003

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Voting and Usability Project Update

By: Whitney Quesenbery, Whitney Interactive Design

UPA Director of Outreach and Voting and Usability Project

It's been two-and-a-half years since we started the Voting and Usability Project. This project started as we all realized with some horror that usability problems in our voting systems could affect the results of an election--effectively disenfranching some voters through the design of the ballot, as Susan King Roth put it in the report on her research. Since then, our interest has expanded into a more general interest in the usability of voting systems and usability professionals can help make voting systems more usable for everyone.

I'm pleased to announce that the project now has two new leaders: Louise Ferguson, from the UK chapter; and Josephine Scott, from the Southeast Michigan chapter. They broaden and strengthen the project.

Josephine has a former life as an elections specialist with the Michigan Bureau of Elections, an "insider view" she shares in the article The View From Where I (Used To) Sit. Her knowledge of this world of public officials provides insight into how to work with them more effectively.

Louise has been following issues in e-government, including e-voting, in the United Kingdom where there are many initiatives to use e-connections to increase participation by the general public. She has maintained an excellent set of resources and comments on her own Web site, City of Bits. For this issue of the Voice, she provides an overview of the situation in the UK and other countries. She is not only interested in research and social issues in e-voting but broadens the project to add a more global perspective so we can track initiatives around the world.

This global perspective is important, not just because UPA is an international community, but because voting system vendors and concepts also cross national boundaries. There are projects going on all over the world, from Brazil where a system was designed to ensure that a low-literacy population would be able to vote to experiments with voting by cell phone in the UK.

Next steps

We are currently planning activities for 2004, as both the UK and the United States head into their election season, starting with gathering the information we need for effective advocacy.

We have started a discussion list, upa-evoting, that will serve as an international companion to some of the U.S. lists, bringing in experiences from other jurisdictions (bringing together the U.S., Europe and beyond).

And we are working on several ideas for both general advocacy and education on usability issues in voting systems. If this is an issue that you are interested in, or you would like to participate in the project, please get in touch. We welcome any ideas.

What's been happening in the US?

My part in all of this has been keeping up with issues in voting and usability as it is emerging in the United States. Usability professionals were not the only ones concerned about what happened in Florida. CalTech and MIT computer scientists were also concerned and began an important project.

Computer scientists such as Rebecca Mercuri, David Dill, and others have focused on the accuracy and verifiability of an election, while preserving the third requirement of anonymity. A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins has called into question the reliability of some of the systems. The results of the publicity and advocacy work by VerifiedVoting and others has been to put several planned purchases on hold while the systems are reviewed. There are links to news items and to the report itself on the project web pages.

The UPA has endorsed the resolution proposed by www.VerifiedVoting.org that "providing a voter-verifiable audit trail should be one of the essential requirements for certification of new voting systems." This concept is also included in House bill 2239, but is not received happily by the voting system vendors.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded a grant for research into voting systems, including an investigation of usability issues. Ben Bederson of the University of Maryland HCIL is one of the researchers on this project.

There are also new standards recently released or in draft form. Last year, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) released a new Voting System Standard, the end of a three-year effort to update the standards. The final standard includes an appendix on usability that focuses on the user interface and sets out general principles for the usability of a voting system.

IEEE P-1583 Voting Equipment Standard has a draft standard under review. This project includes a Task Group on Accessibility and Usability (along with Security, Confidentiality and Reliability groups)

In addition, the FEC is near completion of three booklets offering guidance on usability. They include one on usability testing, one (aimed at voting system vendors) on implementing a user-centered design process, and one (for elections and procurement officials) on how to assess the usability of a proposed system. Unfortunately, the Voting Systems Standard is voluntary, and only 37 states have adopted it (as of April 2001). A list of those states is on the FEC FAQ about Standards (scroll down the page to find the list).

One reason this is such an important issue now is that many states are scrambling to replace their old equipment with new electronic voting systems. These are large purchases. In Maryland, the price tag has been reported at $55 million. Once they are bought, customized for the state, procedures put in place and election workers trained, they will not be changed easily. So if there are problems--either with usability, accessibility or verifiability--they will be difficult to fix later.

We all know that a user interface bolted on at the end is rarely usable, that if all of the human interactions are not considered from the beginning, the resulting design reflects system, not human, concerns. Unfortunately, the interface is one of the last things they are worried about. After all, how hard is it to vote?

The standards are there, but everyone involved in voting systems, from the Federal government to the local polling place, needs to understand why usability is important.

As individuals, we can contact our local officials and our congressional representatives and make sure that they hear our message that usability is one of the keys to a free and fair election. We can write letters to the editors, speak at local events and help spread the word.

Usability testing and interface design companies may also want to contact voting system vendors and offer their services. As an organization, we can also make our collective voice heard as advocates for usability. If you have ideas for how we can do this, want to help, or just want additional information please visit the UPA Voting Project .

Usability Professionals' Association

140 N. Bloomingdale Road
Bloomingdale, IL 60108-1017
Tel: +1.630.980.4997
Fax: +1.630.351.8490
UPA: office@upassoc.org

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