With early voting continuing apace (often a slow pace withlong 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.