The Machinery of Democracy: Voting System Usability

August 28, 2006

On August 28, 2006, the Brennan Center released a report and policy proposals regarding the performance of various voting systems and their ability to allow voters to cast valid ballots that reflect their intended choices without undue delay or burdens. This system quality is known as usability. Following several high-profile controversies in the last few elections including most notoriously, the 2000 controversy over the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach voting system usability is a subject of utmost concern to voters and election officials.

The Brennan Center report concluded that two of the most commonly purchased electronic voting systems today are better at recording voter intentions than older systems like the punchcard system used in Florida in 2000. At the same time, the report faulted one electronic voting system under consideration in New York and in use in parts of New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. This system, the full face DRE, continues to unduly hamper voters ability to easily and accurately cast a ballot for their preferred candidate without undue burden, confusion and delay.

Among the reports key findings:

  • Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) and Scrolling Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting systems are more accurate at recording voter intention than older voting systems. In 2004, residual vote rates were less than 1% for both technologies.

  • Full-face DRE systems continue to be plagued with an unacceptably high residual vote rate. In 2000, 2002 and 2004, it exceeded that of either PCOS or scrolling DRE systems.

  • Residual vote rates among voters earning less then $25,000 are higher on full faced DREs (2.8%), than on either PCOS (1.4%) or Scrolling DREs (1.3%).

The report also makes a number of recommendations to increase the accuracy and ease of use of electronic voting machines, no matter what system a jurisdiction has chosen. This includes conducting usability testing on ballots before finalizing their design, using plain language instructions in both English and other languages commonly used in the jurisdiction, and placing such instructions in the top left of the ballot frame.

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