Touchscreen voting errors and fraud are hot topics again in the USA. For example, in the left-wing blog DailyKos, voters' complaints that the machine switched their votes to the other party right before their eyes are given promient, panic-button status. There's plenty of vote fraud in American history, though visibly changing someone's vote would be a silly way to commit it. Rarely do online blog entries contain any visuals, so it's difficult to know what exactly happened unless your were there. It's enough to conclude that the machines seem untrustworthy and did not meet users' expectations.
Meanwhile there's an electronic voting machine on the cover of Time, with an article that blames confusion on my least favorite usability scapegoat, "just plain human error." The magazine details a so-called human error scenario here:
"A woman walked into a polling place in Peoria, Ill. last week and proceeded to use one of the new electronic voting machines set up for early voting. She logged on, went through each contest and seemed to be making her choices. After reviewing each race, the machine checked to see if she was satisfied with her selections and wanted to move on. Each time, she pressed YES, and the machine progressed to the next race. When she was done, a waving American flag appeared on the screen, indicating that her votes had been cast and recorded.
"But there was a problem. The woman had not made any choices at all. She had only browsed. Now when she told the election judges she was ready to do it again--but this time actually vote--they told her it was too late. Pressing the last button, they said, is like dropping your ballot in an old-fashioned ballot box. There's no getting it back."
How the heck is this "human error?" The human knew exactly what she was doing. I know from experience some users of online applications like to first run through a workflow in a test mode, making quick default choices to get to the results. Then they go back, or hit Undo, and make real, thoughful choices with a better understanding of the overall process.
Last year I wrote that touchscreen voting manufacturers need to keep their interface familiar and simple, because they're being held to a higher standard than mechanical voting machines. In retrospect, I was too kind to Diebold, ES&S, and other electronic voting companies. When searching on your company name brings up link after link calling your products into question, something's very wrong.
I don't review interfaces I can't use myself, but if I worked at one of these companies, I'd make sure we were showing voters the following:
Simple screen layouts. Some of the screenshots I've seen have way too much information laid out in two dimensions. Keep things simple in a single list.
Confirmation views and undo opportunities. These certainly would have helped the example voter above.
Physical artifacts. At a minimum, the machines should spit out a receipt with a printed list of each vote and an easily scannable bar code for recounts.
In addition, big physical buttons as part of the interface are a nice idea. There's no reason every function has to be touchscreen. Perhaps pushing a big red button will seem more real and final to voters than if it were on screen.
Update: Visit the Touch Usability blog for great coverage of voting machine usability problems.