COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The design of some voting machines may make it needlessly difficult for people to cast ballots Nov. 5, according to an Ohio State University researcher.
Two studies found that some popularly used voting mechanisms have design shortcomings that frustrate voters, especially those who are shorter than average, elderly, or visually impaired.
For example, one study found that some punch card ballots were confusing to voters. A second study showed that sections of the ballot on mechanical lever voting machines were too high for shorter people to easily see.
"There hasn't been much attention given to how voting systems are actually used by voters and how this might affect election results," says Susan King Roth, leader of the studies and associate professor of industrial, interior and visual communication design at Ohio State.
"The big question is whether the design of voting machines is influencing how people vote. That question hasn't been answered yet, but our research shows the issue deserves attention."
In both studies, Roth videotaped people using real voting machines in a mock-election setup. She then questioned the participants about their experiences.
The most recent study, completed earlier this year, involved 32 Columbus-area residents. A previous study, published in 1994 in the journal Visible Language, included 19 adults.
In the latest study, Roth videotaped people as they recorded votes on a punch card, the most commonly used voting system in the United States during the 1992 presidential election. In this system, voters use a small hand-held punch or stylus to make holes corresponding to their votes in a computer card.
But despite its popularity, "subjects had real concerns about the use of the punch card as a vote recording device," Roth said. "The greatest number of negative comments and ratings we had were about this part of the voting process."
Subjects complained that they weren't sure which hole to punch to correspond with the candidate or issue they were voting for. They had difficulty reading numbers that were too small, and couldn't see the punched holes through the plastic cover to check for errors.
"I think punch cards could be redesigned so they are easier for voters to use," Roth said. "They may be particularly difficult for those who are older or those with vision problems."
Punchcards were used by 39.3 percent of voters in the 1992 election, according to Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C. firm. Following in popularity were the mechanical lever machine (28.4 percent), direct record electronic (3.8 percent), and paper ballot (3.4 percent). The remaining voters used mixed systems.
The earlier study compared mechanical and electronic (Direct Record Electronic) voting machines.
The mechanical lever machine used in the study is operated by turning small metal levers positioned above or below selected candidates or issues. On the electronic machine, voters press buttons next to their choices. A red light flashes in areas of the ballot containing candidates or issues. The light quits flashing when people make their choice.
The study found that parts of the ballot on mechanical lever machines were too high for shorter people to comfortably see. In this study, the top of the issues section of the ballot was 67 inches from the floor. The average American woman's eye height is only 60 inches, Roth said, so those who are below the average height are at a disadvantage.
That may be why four of the nine subjects who used the mechanical lever machine did not vote at all in the issues section. "We saw on the videotape that the shortest people were the ones who didn't vote on the issues section," she said. "On a questionnaire, one of them said she didn't see any issues on the machine."
In contrast, only one of the 10 voters who used the electronic voting machine -- which displays text at a lower height -- did not vote in this section.
"The height problem is one that I didn't expect when I started this research," Roth said. "We would have never known about that without the videotape.
Subjects who used the electronic voting machine were more likely to complete the entire ballot than those who used the mechanical system, the study showed. The reason may be that the flashing red lights reminded voters of areas in which they hadn't voted.
"The lights only stopped flashing when they voted for a candidate or issue, so it acted as a type of prompt," Roth said. "It helped people keep track of their voting."
Roth emphasized that because the two studies were small, the results are preliminary. But the findings show the need to conduct a large-scale study using a variety of voting systems to investigate how voters interact with voting machines. She said she plans to continue this line of research.
"We need to find a better way to design voting systems so that we can ensure equal access to the democratic process for all voters," Roth said.
Contact: Susan King Roth, (614) 292-2298; Roth.firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.email@example.com
EDITOR'S NOTE: Photos of people using voting machines in the study are available by calling Jeff Grabmeier at (614) 292-8457.