July 31st, 2006

Confusion Looms As Factor That Could Bedevil November 7 Election

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“Hanging chads” on punch card ballots in Florida made the 2000 United States election such a debacle that a federal law was passed in 2002 requiring jurisdictions nationwide to replace punch-card voting systems. More than a third of the nation’s 8,000 voting jurisdictions will use new voting technology for the first time in 2007, according to Election Data Services. In July, months ahead of the November 7 election, the replacements and new rules are in the news because they have the potential to precipitate another polling debacle.

The issue that crops up in many of these news stories is confusion. Ergonomics has a role to play in resolving a problem like this, and some election authorities are taking measures that show awareness of some of its precepts.

The Kansas City Star reported in July that the Jackson County Board of Election Commissioners has chosen a simple replacement, mainly to avoid confusing voters and poll workers. Under the new system, called InkaVote, ballots no longer have chads that need to be punched out. Instead, voters use an ink stylus to make marks beside their choices. The ballots then are read and tabulated electronically.
The co-director of the Board, Charlene Davis, said that Los Angeles is the only other place where InkaVote is used and that during the Los Angeles’ June primary election voters were comfortable with the system. Jackson County is also putting more election workers at polling stations. Davis said the extra poll workers were only a precaution and that she did not expect widespread confusion because of the new machines. “That’s why we picked this system,” she said. “It’s the easiest transition for the voters.”

The InkaVote system accommodates disabled voters, a feature that earns ergonomics points. It provides an audio system and keypad for visually impaired voters to record their choices.

The newspaper reports that the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners has chosen an optical-scan system, in which the voter fills a circle beside a candidate’s name, and a touch-screen system. It’s manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, and has been criticized as susceptible to tampering and mistakes. The city’s election officials hope to avoid confusion by creating opportunities for voters to learn the machines well ahead of the election.

The Philadelphia Enquirer anticipates a different kind of confusion in Columbus, Ohio. Under the former state law, registered voters only had to sign their name in poll books to vote. A new law requiring identification for voters at the polls takes effect statewide for the first time in 2006, a change likely to compound confusion with new voting machines.

Politicians and election experts worry that the stage is set for another difficult election, according to the news story.
Peg Rosenfield, an elections specialist with the League of Women Voters of Ohio, told the Inquirer she’s not sure poll workers understand the new rules. Officials hope to avert the crisis with a voter education initiative.

Daniel Tokaji, assistant professor of law at Ohio State University, agreed in the article with the assessment that changed voting rules will result in headaches for election officials and poll workers. “It will probably result in some people’s votes not being counted,” Tokaji said.

An article about the issue in The Washington Post cites an analysis by a committee of National Research Council experts. They note that some states may be unable to comply with the 2002 law’s deadlines for upgrading technology, meaning it is not yet clear whether they will use old or new technology this year. They question whether voters will be able to use the new equipment without confusion, and whether there is enough time to train poll workers.

The analysis suggests crises are inevitable at some polling stations on November 7, but the ergonomics-minded authorities could prevent a nationwide debacle.

Sources: The Kansas City Star; The Philadelphia Enquirer; The Washington Post



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