Tennesseeans Confused by Voting Machines’ BAR

With early voting continuing apace (often a slow pace with
long lines), so does the stream of news on election dysfunction, usually with
an e-voting system as a culprit. But today’s news from Knox County
TN shows how a seemingly
simple question can create some serious – but wholly unnecessary – confusion.

Here’s the situation in Knox County,
with long lines for early voting. One of probably several causes of the long
lines is the confusion that voters report when they have used the Hart e-Slate
balloting system to make selections, and are looking at the screen that reviews
the selections before committing them by pushing the big red “cast ballot”
button. Taking the example of people who selected John McCain and Sarah Palin
for President and Vice President, what they see on top of the review screen is "JOH" which is the first 3 letters of the candidate’s name. Likewise, voters
who chose the Democratic ticket will see "BAR" (as in "..ack Obama") which is
even more confusing because another candidate for President on the ballot is
named "Bob Barr". So in addition to not understanding whether the machine
correctly recorded the selection for McCain ("JOH" is not a really obvious
version of "McCain/Palin"), it looks to Obama voters that the vote got flipped
from Obama to Barr – certainly BAR looks more like "Barr" than "Obama" doesn’t
it? (For more info see "Voting machine issue confusing to some" by Rebecca Ferrar.)

Well, at first glance, this seems ridiculous. Who would
design a user interface that could only display the first three letters of a
name? In fact the maximum number of letters is more than that, but all but
three get used up by some text that TN law requires to precede the candidate’s
name. Now, you might ask whether the folks at Hart Systems ought to have known
about some states’ having these laws like TN’s that lead to this situation. But
let’s be charitable – there are 50 states with a whole lot of election law (which
is of course being changed over time), so the oversight is perhaps excusable,
even if the result is not.

But a better question would be this: why have a maximum at
all? Why did they delegate to software the decisions about how an electronic
ballot would look? Why not show the voter a summary view that was designed by a
sensible person just as painstakingly as the actual paper ballot was designed? Surely
election officials know better how to lay out ballot information, better anyhow
than a software developer writing some code without knowing the tomes of
election law out there? We have lots of angst when there is a poor ballot
design, like butterfly ballots, or contests split across pages, etc.

The sad truth is that such an approach is very feasible.
(For the geeks, it’s called “pre-rendered user interface.” http://pvote.org/prerendering.html
) It could easily have been part of Hart’s voting system for ballot design. It
would have been a major simplification to the software of the e-Slate device.
But nobody thought it was important, because nobody had an incentive to make
the e-Slate software simple, or to have the software require that election
officials do extra work to get this summary display done right. The tendency
among software developers is to make the software “smart” (in this case
dynamically generating the summary screen including truncating too-long names)
and make it “easy” on the user (no need to do extra screen layout work to avoid
confusing voters).

Fincal point: although "MCC" and "BAR" and "BOB" (that’s short for "Bob
Barr") seem silly, this is a consequence of a classic case of software developer
mentality mis-applied to what is actually a mission-critical system – critical
to the mission of confidence in our elections and our democracy. In other
cases, software folks know that they’re working on something critical, for
example in avionics systems, no one would assume it might be OK to truncate "overly long" numbers about altitude or inclination of an airplane. The Hart
folks maybe didn’t know it at the time, but their software is, in a different
way, just as critical.


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