Study Claims Electronic Voting Security, Usability Fears Overblown

By Chris Gonsalves  |  Posted 2008-01-25 Print this article Print

A recent academic study has some strong data behind it showing the brighter side of electronic voting systems' reliability.

Despite critics’ claims that the technology is insecure and prone to error, a new study finds electronic voting touch screen systems are reliable and needn’t be backed up with auditable paper trails.

The study, by the University of Maryland along with the University of Rochester and the University of Michigan, finds that so-called Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) voting systems get high marks for voter confidence and satisfaction, though the researchers concede users still frequently make errors and require help during the voting process.

Such usability concerns wouldn’t be helped by adding paper trails to e-voting systems, says the study, which also chides electronic-voting critics for “focusing on the wrong issues.”

"Recent history is clear. The election problem most likely to tilt a close race is not security, but the inability of voters to cast their ballots the way they intended," wrote Paul Herrnson, director of UM’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship and a principal investigator and on the study. "The hazards of poor ballot design didn't end with Florida's hanging, pregnant and dimpled chads in 2000. But tremendous improvement in voters' abilities to cast their votes accurately and without assistance can be accomplished simply by improving the way ballots are laid out on touch screen and paper-based systems."

The accuracy of current electronic voting systems hovers around 97 percent, a decent mark, but still enough error to complicate a tight race. "A three percent error rate sounds good until you consider that in the 2000 presidential race the percentage of uncounted ballots was only two percent," Herrnson says. "It’s still enough to affect the outcome of a close election."

Accuracy dropped below 90 percent when the task got more complicated, such as voting for more than a single candidate in a race, voting a straight-party ticket or making corrections before casting the ballot.

"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," wrote Frederick Conrad, an associate research professor in the Joint Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Maryland.

The five-year electronic voting study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Maryland State Board of Elections. Researchers tested machines from major DRE vendors including Diebold, Hart InterCivic and Elections Systems and Software. The full results of the study appear in a new book titled “Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot,” published by the Brookings Press.

According to the study, all of the voting methods tested were susceptible to various types of voter error, including missed votes and voting for the wrong candidate.

"One of the things we've learned in this study is that training may be even more important than which voting system is used," says Richard Niemi, a report co-author and University of Rochester political scientist. "People don't automatically know how to vote on these or any unfamiliar machines. We saw this with incorrectly marked paper ballots, problems with straight-party voting and the number of subjects that needed assistance."

The study recommends election officials hold off on purchasing new equipment until the machines have been tested for usability and encourages municipalities to promote DRE through education and hands-on demonstrations at shopping malls, county fairs, and other public venues.”

The study also found that voters prefer systems that look more “computerized,” with robust navigation controls. Test subjects also indicated they trusted the paperless touch screens more than paper ballots when it came to getting their vote right. Paper audit trails resulted in only modest increases in performance and almost no increase in voter confidence, the study found.

"Most touch screen systems were found to be easy to use, support large and clear type, and the ability to readily change a vote," says Benjamin Bederson, a report co-author and computer scientist at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. "This added up to an overall positive response by voters. But there are still glitches, and these must be fixed."

For those states such as California, Colorado Florida and Ohio considering a move back to paper in the wake of DRE security and integrity concerns, the study had a simple message: Don’t waste your time. "The history of the paper ballot in the United States is checkered with ballot theft and ballot box stuffing," the report says. Tampering with touch screen systems requires greater technical skill.

Adding paper trails to Diebold and some other electronic systems may be more problematic than helpful, in part because of their printers' tendency to jam and break down, the study’s authors wrote.


Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.