Voting with (Little) Confidence

The prototype that Bederson designed, which has a touch-screen interface that makes it easy for users to zoom in and out to view the full ballot or a specific race, held its own in the comparison -- a fact that Bederson takes as a sign that commercial machines need to be better designed. "This is a strong indication that the other systems need improvement," he says, noting that the prototype, which he had not studied very extensively before testing it with the other machines, had the lowest error rate for the simple task. Bederson says that the purpose of the prototype was to give the researchers two ways of studying the usability problem: by building a system from scratch, and by testing existing systems.

In spite of the usability problems, Bederson says, voters often seemed to like the touch-screen systems. He believes that the problems can and should be fixed, and that, if systems are tested and evaluated more thoroughly before being deployed, it should be possible to get the benefits of touch screens without the security and usability pitfalls.

Ted Selker, an associate professor at MIT Media Lab, who is currently working on a voting project conducted at MIT and the California Institute of Technology, says that electronic machines can be useful because they provide voters with better feedback during the process. For example, completion meters can help voters see when they have missed a section of the ballot. However, Selker also notes many problems with electronic machines' security and usability, including ballot design. Anything that makes the process more complicated can gain or lose votes accidentally, he says. Also, adding a paper trail is only helpful if poll workers know how to handle the paper properly, he says, pointing out that the paper produced must be protected and kept from tampering in its own right. Selker says that he thinks the voting process could be improved, no matter what system is used, if administrators focus on providing poll workers with training to help people use the machines, and to correctly handle sensitive information, such as a paper trail.

Whether electronic voting machines are under scrutiny for usability or security, many experts say that their design flaws call for reevaluation of the devices. Tadayoshi Kohno, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Washington, who has studied the security of several electronic systems, says, "My feeling of the electronic-voting community is that we started walking down a dark alley, and we know that it's very dangerous. We know that at the end of the valley is a safe place. As a philosophical question, I have to ask, should we continue going down this dark alley, or should we step back and figure out some other way we want to go to safety?"

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