Poor ballot design on touch-screen voting systems can cause voters to make errors and force them too often to ask for help, according to a study released yesterday on the widely used but controversial balloting technology.
The five-year study of voter experiences concludes the problem can be fixed by simplifying the appearance of ballots on the touch screens to prevent voters from making errors such as unintentionally selecting the wrong candidate or not casting a vote.
Despite the problems, the study's authors, led by a University of Maryland political scientist, say voters generally were confident in and satisfied by the six electronic voting systems tested.
"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," said Maryland professor Paul Herrnson, who conducted the study with researchers from the University of Rochester and the University of Michigan.
Many states adopted the touch-screen systems, which look like automated-teller machines, after the problems with paper ballots during the 2000 presidential election. But critics say the systems are not secure enough, can produce false results and don't let voters verify that their choices were correctly recorded.
Some states have chosen to retrofit the equipment with printers that will produce a paper record of votes. A few are abandoning them, including Maryland, which has plans to buy optical-scan machines that read paper ballots filled out by voters.
The report warns that these systems have their flaws, such as printer jams. It also concludes the touch-screen machines would be harder to tamper with than any voting system involving a paper ballot.
The equipment studied included optical scan machines and touch-screen devices made by Diebold, which makes many of the electronic voting machines in use. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Maryland State Board of Elections.