Two years from now, election night in the United States might not be quite as exciting. The candidates will still be slinging promises, and a little mud, too, but what could be missing is the barrage of inconsistencies and confusion in how the people cast their votes throughout the nation.
Finally last Wednesday, President Bush signed H.R. 3295, the “Help America Vote Act of 2002” that gives states $3.9 billion to replace outdated voting machines, improve voter education and increase poll worker training, all in time for the 2004 presidential election. But two groups, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) started working on voting booth reform through IEEE-SA Project 1583, Voting Equipment Standard, in June, 2001.
Stephen Berger, Chair of the IEEE Standard Coordinating Committee on voting systems, has been overseeing some of the work in the much needed standards intended to improve accessibility, security and reliability. “We have about 15 organizations participating,” said Berger. “[We are] bring[ing] together the shared technical talent of the IEEE and other organizations partnering with us, to develop the best set of equipment standards,” Berger said. Thus far, the greatest hopes in making the voting equipment work for the voter come from technological advancements like electronic voting. And ergonomically speaking, if the technology works right and is used properly, that should be good news for the voter. Elections should be faster, voting should be simpler, and the results should be more reliable.
Similar to an ATM machine, electronic voting, including touch screens like the ones being used throughout the state of Georgia and parts of Florida and other states this election, was expected to make the biggest impact on ease of voting in this year’s elections. However, after a primary election in Florida in September was fraught with problems associated with the touch-screen technology including machines that were inoperable, machines that reset themselves mid-vote, and election workers who were not properly trained to use the machines, the glimmer of technology seemed to be fading fast.
“We’re in our infancy in terms of making usability a centerpiece of standards on this,” said Doug Lewis, Executive Director of the Election Center in Houston, Texas, a non-profit, non-partisan organization who will take the suggestions from the IEEE/HRES project and hand it over to the federal government. “We thought voters understood,” Lewis conceded .
According to Lewis, however, technology is still the key. “The fastest growth is on full electronic systems, direct recording equipment,” said Lewis. “Touch-screen is just one type. Clearly, when we’ve looked at what’s already in the marketplace, it’s better than it’s been in the past, but there are some things that are not as intuitive as manufacturers thought. If you select a candidate by touching that candidate on the screen, how do you change that?” Lewis said. And while a voter can’t change his vote on a punch card, either, the effort required to punch the card is still more intentional than an accidental touch caused by brushing up against the screen.
Already in Broward County, Florida, where touch-screens debuted in the September primary elections, a pair of senators are calling for a reserve of paper ballots. Others speculate excessive wait times at polling places will scare off voters who may not be convinced of the importance of a non-presidential election and find two hour waits too long to be justified. And none of this adds up to an improvement for the user.
There is currently no consistency regarding how a voter speaks his or her mind in the voting booth in the United States. While a few locations have switched to touch screen voting in response to the Florida 2000 presidential debacle where thousands of votes may not have been credited due to the now-infamous hanging chads and butterfly ballots, most states are awaiting the official voting reform scheduled for 2004 before changing methods. In tomorrow’s election, 28 states will continue to use punch card voting, the mother of the hanging chad