Civic Design

Monday, March 31, 2008

UPA Testifies at EAC Roundtable: Usability , Access, Plain Language

UPA’s Usability in Civil Life Project made another contribution to the national conversation about usability and accessibility in voting last week. Two members of the project gave testimony to the Election Assistance Commission at their Usability and Accessibility roundtable discussion regarding the Technical Guidelines Development Committee’s (TGDC) recommended voluntary voting system guidelines (VVSG). The event was held at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.

Usability in Civic Life director Whitney Quesenbery presented testimony that ties accessibility to accessibility in voting systems.

“It takes access plus usability to provide accessible usability to all,” she said in written testimony.

UPA Voting and Usability project member Josephine Scott attended for Karen Bachmann, User Experience manager at the Society for Technical Communications. Josie advocated the adoption of plain language for all voting materials: ballots, instructions, polling materials and poll worker documentation to simplify voting.

“Using plain language helps bring clarity to an inherently complex activity,” she wrote.

More information:
UPA Usability and Civic Life Project:
The Election Assistance Commission:
Whitney’s Testimony: Connecting Usability and Accessibility in Elections
Josie’s Testimony: Plain Language: Adding Simplicity to Voting

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

American Idol or Vote by Mail for Florida?

Elections seem to be under attack from both sides: the concerns about being able to prevent computer tampering run squarely up against our desires to have everything be fast, easy and high-tech.

A few days ago, a friend asked why we couldn’t run elections like American Idol. After all, the television show collects votes from some 500 million viewers, compared to a mere 122 million votes in the 2004 presidential elections. Do a quick web search, and you’ll find many blog posts wondering the same thing. Of course American Idol allows you to “vote early and vote often” – something frowned-on in political elections.

We may not be ready for American Idol-style phone voting, but Florida is wondering why it can’t use all-postal balloting to re-run its Democratic primary. After all, Oregon and Washington State have been doing this for years and seem to have a system that works well. It eliminates much of the cost, and they might avoid the problems with new systems that have plagued Florida in recent years.

Is it really that easy? An article in the New York Times, “For Florida, Warnings of Complexity of Mail-In Voting” looks at some of the issues. Nick Handy, director of elections for Washington and John Lindback, director of elections for Oregon both have a long list of questions about whether an all-postal election could be planned in “Internet time”, pointing out that their procedures have been refined over the course of 20 years.

We put a lot of store in the opinions of these two election directors. John Lindback worked with AIGA’s Design for Democracy project to redesign the ballots, election information, and the materials used by election workers as they process the ballots. Nick Handy brought UPA’s Dana Chisnell to Washington to train local election officials to usability test ballots. We wish more election officials would take the time to include good design and usability testing in their plans. Elections are complicated enough without worrying about whether voters can use the ballot correctly.

For Florida, Warnings of Complexity of Mail-In Voting
By William Yardley, Published March 15, 2008

Design for Democracy

Progressive Washington State: Training local elections officials to usability test ballots

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Ohio Officals Test Ballots for Weather But Did They Test for Design Problems?

National Public Radio reports that Ohio election officials are braced for the worst because they have been asked to implement a new optical scan system in an impossibly short time frame (two months.) To prevent disaster, some local officials even left ballots out in the damp, tore them, spilled coffee on them, all in a effort to make sure that their equipment will handle all possible voting conditions.

In one of the most populous counties, Cuyahoga County, a locus of problems with touch screen systems in the past, officials were not able to deploy enough optical scan counters for every precinct. They will implement a complicated central count process that will involve halting precinct voting and transporting ballots to the central count location during the voting day, NPR reports.

All of this complexity has election officials working double overtime to make sure things work smoothly for the closely-watched Tuesday primary.

Unfortunately, we do not have evidence that officials have asked real people to test these ballots to make sure that a ballot design flaw does not cause them problems later. The article does not mention any attempt to make certain that the ballots do not have some hidden flaw like the unnecessary “extra box” on primary ballots in Los Angeles County that may be responsible for thousands of spoiled ballots. (See Ballots Not Counted in LA Primary Because "Extra Box" Not Marked, Feb. 8).

Election officials should be concerned. We know that voters will not have the benefit of feedback they would get when the counter rejects a ballot that has an error. Voters will not get a second chance to correct their mistakes. If there is a hidden problem -- one that might have been revealed and fixed by usability testing -- state and local election officials will be under fire once again.

We hope we are wrong; we welcome any news that election officials tested the ballot not just for accuracy and poor voting conditions, but for vote-ability. We also hope that voters understand the instructions, are able to vote the ballot properly, and have their vote counted with confidence.

Usability testing is one way to help ensure that confidence.

More information

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