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Chicago to enlist graphic designers for friendlier ballots.
November 29, 2000 7:27 PM   Subscribe

Chicago to enlist graphic designers for friendlier ballots. [free reg may be req'd] There's been a bunch of discussion about the usability problems with various voting systems, notably punch-card ballots. Chicago didn't have anything as dramatic as a "butterfly" prexy ballot or two pages' worth of candidates, but we still had close to 120,000 discards from 2.1 million votes -- and when compared with jurisdictions using other systems, there's little evidence to suggest that voters are skipping the presidential ballot. That's just how bad manual punch card technology is. Even if we can't get rid of them just yet, at least we can make sure they aren't confusing. Did I just post the twenty-sixth link on Metafilter today? GO AWAY. METAFILTER IS FULL. :)
posted by dhartung (24 comments total)

Why can't y'all just use a freaking pencil and paper and fill in the freaking dots like we do in Canada. We ALL use the same ballot right across the country, the ballots get counted by hand, and we know who our Prime Minister is the next day, no questions asked, no lawsuits, no problems, nada.

posted by PWA_BadBoy at 7:53 PM on November 29, 2000

This is the thing: if everyone had those sturdy mechanical voting booths which last FIFTY YEARS maybe there wouldn't be all this punch-card/paper ballot goofyness. A guy from Chicago used to tell me about how when he was a kid and FDR was running for President, the precinct captain would send him to the bathroom with a sheaf of unmarked paper ballots. There in the privacy of the toytee, he'd check off FDR's name with a pencil.

It's stories like these, I'm sure, that brought those voting machines into use in Chicago at least up until the Eighties. Now it seems Chicago has gone back to the paper ballot -- or at least the card -- and is having the same problems as everyone else.

When will people realize that the old way is the good way: Bring back those honest machines!!! Designers are fine but what we need are a bunch of mechanics and grease monkeys.
posted by leo at 8:11 PM on November 29, 2000

Yep. What the Canadian just said.
posted by lagado at 8:15 PM on November 29, 2000

Leo, the problem with voting machines is there's often not enough room to list every candidate and proposition being voted for. Even in New York, which has some of the strictest 'get on the ballot' laws in the country, they almost ran out of room.

Here's a picture

You'll notice the last three lines on the ballot are taken up by six parties. The Greens had to share with the socialist workers, the libertarians with the working families and (Buchanan ) reform with the constitution party. The potential for confusion is there, especially if you have someone who simply votes the party line every year.

Propositions are listed on top of all the voting lines (sorry, no picture), which means you can only have as many propositions as the machine is wide.

The other problem I have with voting machines is (as I understand it) the lack of a paper record. I was reading this years fray election story and was confused for a second when Adam Rakunas mentioned a ballot receipt. Since I've been voting with a machine all my life, I had no idea people get receipts. You may not get a stuffed box with a machine, but when fraud does happen it's a bit trickier to spot.

posted by alan at 8:48 PM on November 29, 2000

Why use clunky old machines? I can see some possibility in putting a wall of workstations in all those grammar school gymnasiums, smiliar to our new metrocard vending machines. Touch screen voting is where it's at!
posted by tomorama at 9:54 PM on November 29, 2000

Well, wherever you've got a long list of candidates you're going to get some confusion. There were reports of paper ballots so long that people voted twice. Also, part of the original inspiration for the notorious butterfly ballot in West Palm Beach was an attempt to squeeze in all the candidates while at the same time making their names bigger.

As far as our Canadian and Australian friends are concerned, don't pat yourselves on the back so quickly. I mean, we foolishly thought we had a peachy system in the U.S. which faithfully reported the votes (of at least those people who made it through the police lines). Then this mother of an election came along and we learned otherwise. Are the number of disqualified voters any lower chez vous?
posted by leo at 9:59 PM on November 29, 2000

Of course any voting mechanism has potential for abuse. Even a receipt could lie. The larger question, which I was trying to get at with these links, isn't the "fraud" quotient so much a part of our headlines recently, but the mere fact that punch-cards don't work very well under the best of conditions.

Those lever machines were more reliable at recording votes, perhaps, when they were working correctly, but tended to break down a lot -- and they aren't made anymore. Punch cards are cheap and use centralized counting machinery.

I'm nervous about touch-screen voting because I know how easy it is to write a program that puts up a dialog box saying "your vote has been recorded!"
posted by dhartung at 10:02 PM on November 29, 2000

On the electronic front, I agree. I mean, in Chicago, they don't trust the people working in the El to sell weekly and monthly passes. You have to go to a currency exchange or supermarket of all places to get a rapid transit pass. Here in New York, they've recently found that people were able to charge up their metro passes with no money by somehow fooling the machines. If that's what happens to get on the subway, think of the possibilities come election day.
posted by leo at 10:14 PM on November 29, 2000

Milton Glazer said today he would’ve made a photo of the candidate and the punch hole the same area. He said something to the effect that his solution doesn’t seperate the two tasks of 1) finding the candidate and 2) popping the chad.

If you get my drift.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 12:42 AM on November 30, 2000

Then this mother of an election came along and we learned otherwise. Are the number of disqualified voters any lower chez vous?

Yes, we have such things as invalid and disqualified votes.

What we don't have is miscounted votes or mobs of thugs trying to prevent recounts.

Just listen to the Canadian.
posted by lagado at 1:11 AM on November 30, 2000

That's one thing I don't get. Invalid and disqualified votes? Why isn't there a way to insure before a person leaves the building that they successfully and correctly filled out the stupid form? I mean here in Texas, you put the ballot in the machine and if you did something wrong it gives an error and spits it back out immediately.

Any system which doesn't figure out a ballot was filled out wrong until after the person has left the voting place is an incompetent system. In America there's no excuse for a single invalidation or disqualification. Every American's vote should count. Period. No excuses. The entire state of Florida should be disqualified from this election because it is their incompetence and archaic equiptment that has put us in this situation. That'd teach them a lesson. Maybe next election they won't be so stupid. This is outrageous.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:41 AM on November 30, 2000

What does everyone think about electronic voting? I'm not suggesting that we could hop on the internet and vote (which would be a security nightmare), but setting up an isolated, secure system. Just like normal, go to your place of voting site down at a computer, click a few radio buttons and your done... That'd be nice.

If they got it right.

posted by tallman at 6:04 AM on November 30, 2000

I'm in favor of electronic voting which produces a physical (preferably both human- and machine-readable) ballot. Having an isolated (non-networked) device which marks up a paper ballot, which the human can verify without the machine, could reduce a lot of the skullduggery that a cracker could inflict upon a pure electronic ballot.
posted by harmful at 6:20 AM on November 30, 2000

Wait a minute... What do graphics artists know about usability? Sure, they'll make a very attractive ballot, but will it be any easier to use? No. Read #4 in Tog's Elephants in the Living Room.
posted by fleener at 6:23 AM on November 30, 2000

By the way, when was the last Canadian (or Australian) national election that placed the front-runners within 0.1% of one another?
posted by harmful at 6:23 AM on November 30, 2000

I'm with harmful's idea of an electronic device that generates a hard-copy ballot.

And as a resident of Chicago, when I heard about this I thought "It's not the graphic design of the ballots that needs changing, it's the technology."
posted by dnash at 7:28 AM on November 30, 2000

What do graphics artists know about usability?

Design's design. Either it works or it doesn't. That's what designers know about usability. But, hey, thanks for the cheap comment.
posted by leo at 9:21 AM on November 30, 2000

Tognazzini is not the final authority on this.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 10:11 AM on November 30, 2000

when was the last Canadian (or Australian) national election that placed the front-runners within 0.1% of one another?

Well, they have a parliamentary system, see? But in Britain, there have been a few ties in the last few years (in 60,000-member constituencies) and plenty of close results. One of the 1997 elections was won by two votes: the losing candidate contested the result, arguing that unstamped ballots were improperly counted. The courts agreed, held a by-election and the original winner increased his majority to, um, 21,000.
posted by holgate at 11:13 AM on November 30, 2000

Actually, Brennan, I'd been thinking about OCR numerals on SX-70 film. Expose it in the machine, after the voter ok's everything, then shoot it out, and they can eyeball the numbers against the chart, if they like. And they're rugged as hell, in the short term.

I'm a *maniac* for people remembering, especially the "electronic voting" crowd, that a vote *is a physical object". If you do the votes on a website, how in hell do you recount that.

In short, as the 3270 people knew, and some web-app people still do: transactions are *good*.

As for checking that it's valid, we tend to forget, because elections aren't the mess here they are in some countries, *what* the requirements of a voting system are, and *why* they exist. The one in question here is "secrecy". It shouldn't be necessary for *anyone* to look at my ballot who can connect the vote with me.

A good treatise on the requirements of a voting system is found in this paper on electronic voting, from a PhD at Bell Labs who has specialized in the topic. Her site is here, and contains many other useful links.

I'm all for computer-assisted voting... but let's do it right *the first time*, shall we?
posted by baylink at 12:17 PM on November 30, 2000

Oh, yeah:

"What? I have to register? Wahhhh!"
posted by baylink at 12:34 PM on November 30, 2000

What we don't have is miscounted votes or mobs of thugs trying to prevent recounts.

Ah, geez, this is getting ridiculous. If by some wacky event the selection of the Candian Prime Minister came down to a few hundred votes in, say, Toronto, there would be just as much trouble. There's a lot at stake and there really are legitimate differences of opinions. There's always crazy people willing to act violently. I don't believe there is that big of a difference between Americans and Canadians.

As for the election systems we use, the reason there are outdated, poorly working voting systems is that it's up to counties to purchase and run the voting systems. Now, as important as the voting process is, a system that is only used four or five times a year at most is not going to be high enough on county priority lists to justify spending (what would be) tremendous amounts of money on foolproof perfect systems when there are other things to worry about like law enforcement, transportation and utility infrastructure, education and all the other problems counties have to deal with. Unless the states or the feds step in with some cash, things aren't going to improve for a long time.
posted by daveadams at 1:29 PM on November 30, 2000

Remember, ballots have to work for every single voter without exception. The old mechanical-arm voting machines in the U.S. were a serious barrier to hundreds of thousands of disabled voters who couldn't get into the booth, couldn't read the wall legends, and/or couldn't pull the lever. And certain U.S. courts ruled that the inability to pull the lever was the person's problem, not the voting authority's. (Like it's your fault you can't climb stairs or read print or hear the radio.)

There is no perfect system. However, a system involving mechanical levers is too imperfect a system.
posted by joeclark at 4:46 PM on November 30, 2000

Now, as important as the voting process is, a system that is only used four or five times a year at most is not going to be high enough on county priority lists to justify spending (what would be) tremendous amounts of money on foolproof perfect systems when there are other things to worry about

You guys still don't get it! It amazes me but you don't get it. Sheesh!

This thread is cold so I'm wasting my breath but here goes anyway...

Technology is not the solution to the problem. The voting machines prove that. It's about systems, legal systems, structures and laws.

It's about providing resources to ensure that its done right. Voting is THE most important issue in a democracy. It's more important than local government issues. Everything else a government has to do has to accommodate this basic fact.

A democracy that doesn't ensure that the counting is fair and above partisan manipulation is not a democracy that works very well. Just because this election is close doesn't excuse the system from failure.

It has failed because not because of technology but because the system is flawed.

posted by lagado at 4:43 AM on December 2, 2000

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