From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

How Ergonomics Almost Stopped the California Recall

Some call it an election, others liken it to a circus, but whatever it is, today’s California recall election would have had at least one less side show with a little timely ergonomics intervention.

First it was a go, with all 135 or so candidates vying to stop California Governor Gray Davis mid-term; then it was off, courtesy of a little legal battle over ballots and how voters interact with them. In other words, ergonomics.

At least six counties in California are still using those infamous punch card ballots that caused so much confusion and trouble in the last presidential election. And when the ACLU caught wind of that fact, it filed suit to halt the California election so the human factors problems that occurred in Florida in 2000 wouldn’t happen again.

Ergonomically speaking, punch ballots are far from suited to every voter. A July 2001 report from CalTech and MIT regarding voting technology noted that between four and six million votes were lost in the 2000 presidential election because of the election process itself; of that, 1.5 million votes for presidential candidates were lost due to faulty voting equipment. The punch card ballots have the highest rates of “unmarked, uncounted and spoiled” votes over the last four presidential elections. And it’s doubtful that any of the 135 gubernatorial candidates on the California ballot today wants to say goodbye to potential votes.

In the May, 2003 issue of User Interface Design Update, Kath Straub, Ph.D., CUA, Chief Scientist of Human Factors International (HFI) Inc., and Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., CUA, Chief of Technical Staff for HFI, noted that the problems with the 2000 election could be linked to usability and ergonomics issues like registration mix-ups, faulty polling equipment, confusing ballot designs, pressure to vote quickly and polling station policies.

But surely with the new systems that will be in place for the 2004 general election, the equipment is designed to fix all of these problems, right? Not necessarily. California, for example, is scheduled to completely switch its voting equipment to eliminate punch cards by March 2004, with the favored new systems being electronic voting. However, in the CalTech/MIT study, electronic voting machines were found to have the second highest rates of unmarked, uncounted or spoiled ballots over the last four presidential elections.

Voting equipment aside, Straub and Weinschenk write that “there is a need to reassess the whole voting system to evaluate and improve the various task processes, the human-voting machine interaction and both human-machine and human-human error recovery strategies,” something that a mere switch to electronic voting can’t do all on its own.

And there are other problems. Direct Recording Electronic Devices (DREs), today’s electronic voting machines of choice, put the ballot on a tablet PC-like touch screen. Font sizes can be changed as needed, ballots can be designed to be approachable by users, and even intimidating and long ballots can be split into separate screens for users, if so desired. Sounds perfect, right?

But Straub and Weinschenk note that researchers at University of Maryland recently looked at the DRE system being used in that state and found that more human interaction issues like text size, visual design problems and even monitor glare were affecting voters’ abilities to cast their complete and intended ballot.

What all of this means is that, while technology exists to more thoroughly automate the U.S.’s voting system, neither punch cards nor electronic voting is perfect for every user from an ergonomics perspective. And until a system is developed that works for each and every voter, expect more usability-related side-shows like the one that nearly halted today’s California election.

Sources: User Interface Design Update;; July 2001 Report of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project