Civic Design

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Was Alvin Greene picked by voters trying to eliminate errors on their ballots?

As a post on the Newsweek site pointed out on June 18, usability of a voting system may have influenced yet another election. This time, it's the Alvin Greene victory in the Democratic Senate primary in South Carolina last week. We think it's likely that one particular feature of the user interface may have caused some voters to change their vote: representing undervoted contests on the review screen in red.

Proximity and placement in the ballot could have made a difference

We know that placement in the order of candidates does influence the likelihood of getting votes. (According to Michael Alvarez colleagues at the Voting Technology Project at CalTech, candidates that appeared above and below Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California recall of Gray Davis in 2003 received more votes that they probably normally would have if they'd appeared elsewhere in the list of 150 candidates for governor:

Placement in the overall ballot also makes a difference. There is roll-off in later contests mainly because voters don't know much about the candidates that appear lower down on the ballot, such as judges. 

Using a computer to vote introduces usability issues with navigating ballots

Using electronic voting systems introduces another layer of usability issues in marking and casting ballots as voters must navigate the ballot differently from how they use a printed, optical scan ballot. All electronic voting systems show a summary review screen at the end of all the contests. It lists all of the contests with the choices the voter made for each. The information is color coded: On most systems a completely voted contest appears blue; an under- or un-voted contest appears red. There is mixed research about how much attention voters pay to this screen. One thing we do know is that some voters are seriously disturbed by the red messages. 

In one study, red on the summary screen of an electronic ballot caused some voters to change their votes

In a study that Janice ("Ginny") Redish and I conducted for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2008 (, we observed that many of our 45 study participants wanted so much to remove the "error" that appeared on the summary review screens for undervoted contests that they sometimes resorted to extraordinary measures to get the system to remove the red entries on their ballot review screens.

The voting system we used in our study behaved similarly to commercially available systems. That is, study participants could select candidates using a touch screen and move forward or back in the ballot by touching appropriate buttons. When they got to the review screen, they could touch the contest they wanted to review or change to go back to it. This is different from the South Carolina system, which forced voters to review undervoted contests before casting the ballot. Although the flow of our system was more straightforward, study participants chose to go back into the ballot to change the red contests to blue.

Some participants voted for candidates they were not otherwise interested in voting for; at least one participant entered blank write-in votes (by going to the write-in for a contest and putting in a blank space) to make the red entries in the review screens turn blue. We observed 17% of our study participants asking questions, expressing concerns, and changing votes because the red color bothered them so much.

-- Dana Chisnell

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