Study: Voters prefer e-voting, but tech has limits

Voters generally prefer electronic voting machines to paper-based alternatives, but some e-voting machines have error rates of 3 percent or more, according to a study released Friday.

Voters generally were most comfortable with some models of touch-screen e-voting machines, often called direct record electronic (DRE) machines, when tested against paper ballots and e-voting machines using buttons and dials, said the study, published by the Brookings Institute, a centrist think tank.

In five DRE systems researchers tested, the error rate of the worst-performing machines was 3 percent in a simple task such as voting for president, researchers said. In more complex races, the error rate, the rate at which voters voted for the wrong candidate, was higher. Researchers urged voting machine manufacturers and elections officials to focus more on ballot design, saying badly designed ballots caused many of the problems.

"You might think, 'Hey, a 3 percent error rate, that's pretty good,'" said Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland and lead author of the study. "But ... 3 percent is not good enough in an election, because it can change the outcome. This shows us quite clearly that there's room for improvement."

The researchers tested DREs from five companies, including Diebold, ES&S and Hart InterCivic.

In addition, voters seemed to approve of verification systems such as printouts that accompany some DREs, but the verification systems didn't significantly cut the error rate of DREs and often caused confusion and prompted voters to seek help from poll workers, said the study, conducted by political science and computer science professors from the University of Maryland, the University of Rochester and the University of Michigan. The study has been published in a book, "Voting Technology: The Not-so-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot."

Some of the study's results were surprising, said co-author Richard Niemi, a political science professor at the University of Rochester in New York. Niemi expected the volunteers would find paper ballots easiest to use because of the familiarity, he said. The top-rated DREs came out ahead of paper when voters were asked about ease of use and confidence that their ballots would be recorded as cast, he said.

"I certainly expected ... that the paper ballot would be the standard by which everything else would be compared," Niemi said.

The researchers, when testing vote verification methods, tested multiple systems, including printouts showing the voters' choices, a separate monitor that accompanied a DRE, and a receipt-type system in which voters could later check online or on the phone to see if their ballots had been accepted. Most verification systems increased the vote accuracy only slightly and caused confusion, with 5 percent to 8 percent of voters needing help, said Michael Hanmer, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.

The verification systems also added a "level of complexity" for poll workers, Hanmer said. Researchers conducting simulated elections using volunteer voters had trouble loading the paper rolls and hooking up the monitor in the verification systems, Hanmer said. "I can tell you, we struggled with some of the systems," he added.

The study was unveiled at a forum in Washington, D.C., on Friday, and several audience members suggested the researchers didn't give enough emphasis to possible security breaches when looking at voter verification mechanisms. Critics of e-voting systems have said that without printouts or other verification systems, it's impossible to audit DREs and detect tampering with the machines or machine errors.

Usability isn't the only issue that researchers need to focus on when considering verification systems, said Jeremy Epstein, co-founder of Virginia Verified Voting. "One of the things we worry about is wholesale fraud" caused by the hacking of DREs, he said.

The researchers are concerned about security, but voting fraud has long been a problem in the U.S., no matter what kind of ballots are used, Herrnson said. But recent voting problems in the U.S., including problems with paper ballots in Florida in 2000, haven't been with security, he added.

"We chose not to study [security], because that wasn't the problem the United States faced in 2000," he said. "The problem our country has faced is usability, the problem of folks being able to cast their votes as intended."

Representatives of e-voting machine manufacturers praised the study. Sequoia Voting Systems' experience with voters has mirrored the study's suggestion that they approve of DREs, said Michelle Shafer, the company's vice president for communications and external affairs.

"When you speak with voters, by and large, they are comfortable with electronic voting, especially when they have been given a chance to use the equipment for several election cycles," she said. "Any time change takes place, it must be accompanied with proper training in order to be successful."

Shafer also agreed that ballot design and usability need to be emphasized. "Equipment manufacturers and election officials are constantly making improvements in this area and focusing more on training and education of poll workers and voters, in addition to continued enhancements to our voting equipment in these areas," she said.

DRE manufacturers have generally found lower error rates than the study suggests, added David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade group. DREs also prevent voters from the common mistake of overvoting, he said.

The study's suggestion that voters are comfortable with DREs matches the manufacturers' expectations, he added. "The use of DREs during the voting process is more indicative of the way technology has entered everyone’s daily lives, so the overall positive trend in the experience is expected," Beirne said.

This story, "Study: Voters prefer e-voting, but tech has limits" was originally published by IDG News Service .

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