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The GIGO Principle and Voting Machines

Jef Raskin, Independent Consultant

Garbage in, garbage out—it’s that simple.

There has been much commentary from computer scientists on the advantages and disadvantages of various electronic voting schemes. More holes have been poked in the current electronic designs than were punched in the cards used in Florida. Problems with voting machines extend from the quality of the locks, to the need for a printed audit trail, to the hackability of the communication links. But are our officials being blinded by backlit touch screens, and are we all forgetting the basic principles on which the efficacy of voting depends?

I am not the only person who has observed that some existing technologies already work as well and with the low error rates that the sophisticated and far more expensive all-electronic voting machines promise. One of these that I looked at (and have voted with) is the relatively primitive Optech III-P “Eagle.” You take a light card-stock ballot with the issues and names presented, vote by joining two halves of a printed arrow with an indelible marker, and then place the ballot into the machine. On the front of the machine is a counter, and you can see it increment by one.

The machine tallies the votes and stores them electronically. If a dispute comes up, the human-readable ballots are there to be counted. The Optech Eagle is small and inexpensive, and each voter station is really cheap: just a writing stand with cardboard baffles to keep your vote secret from prying eyes.

This machine is not perfect; it has many potential problems—from sloppily marked ballots to physically stealing the machines. If the machine communicated its results electronically (it doesn’t), all the usual security concerns with networks would arise; but this set of problems can be factored out of the discussion, as they are common to any voting system and have been widely discussed in the literature and the press. Besides, I want to head in a different direction entirely. We’ll also ignore the breach of secrecy that can occur if you are the only voter to use the machine that day—or if somebody notes the order of voters and correlates that order with the order of the collected ballots (this is also a problem of machines with a continuous printed audit tape).

The design and layout of the ballots, whether presented on paper or electronically, is another source of error and chicanery that has been discussed little in proportion to its importance: it figured significantly in the Gore/Bush election in the infamous “Butterfly” ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida, where the poor layout of the ballot itself caused errors. As far as I know, no pending legislation demands testing of ballot designs or analysis by human factors experts. In the same category, as responsible polltakers know, just how you present questions, and even their order can affect the outcomes. Come to think of it, irresponsible polltakers know that, too. We need security there as much as anywhere else.

There’s one small improvement on the ballots or voting machines that would make them more reliable without increasing costs at all: it has to do with issues or offices that a person might choose not to vote on. I admit that I hadn’t studied the qualifications of the people running for the post of harbormaster in a nearby town, so I did not vote for any of the candidates. The voting machines generally cannot distinguish between an overlooked item and a deliberate non-vote. The fix is very simple: another entry for every item that says, “I am not voting on this question.” The Optech Eagle rejects ballots that have too many marks in a category; in fact, it physically returns the ballot to you and you are given a new one to mark. The machine could just as easily be programmed to reject ballots on which at least one response has not been made to every question. This is a general principle that all voting machines should follow: a way of letting it know that the voter has considered every question. I have not heard this simple requirement discussed at all.

But there is a deeper problem. A democracy works on the principle that a majority of the informed, voting citizenry will tend to make decisions that will be of benefit to themselves and, therefore, the country—which is, after all, themselves. Lincoln’s phrase, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” is not an empty motto. With the degradation of our educational system in many places and the abbreviated “sound-bite” (or “byte” if digitally transmitted) style of news all too prevalent, do we still have the premises from which the effectiveness of our form of government is a conclusion? Should ballots have a few test questions that show that voters have a grasp of the issues, and should their votes be weighted by their test scores?

Is it fair to ask:

Is this candidate for or against a flat income tax rate?

—and a few other factual questions about each candidate or issue? I assume the ballot questions would have to be approved for accuracy and pertinence by all the interested parties. As a weighting, I suggest (for two-answer questions) that your percentage score on the quiz—less 50 percent to account for guessing, and then multiplied by two—would be a fair estimate of the value of your vote. Assuming you vote.

Am I being tongue-in-cheek? I’ll leave that question to you. But of all the well-known computer principles being applied to improving voting, I think that “garbage in, garbage out” is the one that we have been ignoring at our own greatest peril. To paraphrase the Bard of Avon: The fault, dear Reader, is not in our computers, but in ourselves.

JEF RASKIN is best known for his book The Humane Interface (Addison-Wesley, 2000) and for having created the Macintosh project at Apple. He holds many interface patents, consults for companies around the world, and is often called upon as a speaker at conferences, seminars, and universities. His current project, The Humane Environment (, is attracting interest in both the computer science and business worlds.

© 2004 ACM 1542-7730/04/0400


Originally published in Queue vol. 2, no. 2
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