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Updated 4:00 PM January 25, 2008




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Study: Voters respond favorably to touch-screen voting equipment

As the nation counts down to this year's presidential election, voters say they have more confidence in paperless, touch-screen systems to record their votes accurately than any other methods, including ones that use paper ballots, a new study says.
"The fewer mental and physical actions it takes to cast a ballot, the better," says Michael Traugott, a professor of communication studies and senior research scientist at the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. Traugott took part in research that examined how voters respond to new voting equipment. (Photo by Lin Jones, U-M Photo Services)

Voters tend to focus on what affects their voting experience rather than the potential for fraud, according to new research by U-M, University of Maryland and University of Rochester. These findings are opposite of what is valued by many computer scientists, voting activists and a growing number of election administration officials.

The research is the first known study to examine how voters respond to new equipment in use since the 2000 presidential election that incorporates the principles of usability from studies of human-computer interaction research.

"Casting a ballot may seem simple, but the interactions between voters and voting system interfaces are complex," says Michael Traugott, a professor of communication studies and senior research scientist at the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). "The more effort involved in voting, the less satisfied voters are with the experience."

Voting fiasco

The relationship between effort and satisfaction does not depend on voters' levels of computer experience, says Frederick Conrad, a research associate professor at ISR and one of the project's researchers.

Voting technology was scrutinized after the 2000 presidential election when problems with the voting process resulted in many disqualified or missing ballots. The fiasco led Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which mandates that states replace outdated voting systems with new ones.

Researchers from the three universities combined their expertise in American politics, campaigns, and human and computer interaction to study voting technology. They evaluated six voting systems, including one prototype not available to municipalities, and tested each based on accuracy, speed and ease of use. The study included responses from 1,540 voters who cast ballots on all of them.

The voting machines studied were paper ballot/optical scan, manual-advance touch screen, auto-advance touch screen with paper, zoomable touch screen (prototype), dial and buttons, and full-face membrane with buttons.

Ballot accuracy varies

When people vote for more than one candidate for some offices, they vote with greater accuracy on paper ballot/optical scan systems and standard touch-screen systems than on other systems. This includes those that present the entire ballot at one time or with mechanical interfaces that require a fair degree of manual dexterity to operate. These paper ballot/optical scan systems do not perform well, however, when voters seek to change a vote or cast a write-in vote. This might lead voters to wonder if they correctly completed the ballots.

"We observed that voters can get quite lost in the voting process and when they do, the chances are greater they will not recover, ultimately voting for no one or a candidate other than they intended," Conrad says.

Voters found the dial and buttons system less comfortable; the ballot was not easy to understand and the voting process was slow and cumbersome. The full-face membrane system also had low ratings due to problems with visibility and readability, such as glare on the ballot surface and small font size.

First-time voters

Voters also have problems with simple systems they do not use often, as they may forget precisely how to operate them since the last time they voted, researchers say.

"The situation is more complex when individuals are first-time voters or when a new voting system is introduced," Traugott says.

Researchers say voters should require few instructions at the polling sites, although instructions should be easily accessible for those who want them.

"The fewer mental and physical actions it takes to cast a ballot, the better," Traugott says.

The findings appear in the new book, "Voting Technology: The Not So Simple Act of Casting a Ballot."

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