Protect your vote -- avoid election machine errors

November 03, 2008

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Of all the conceivable problems that could lead to a miscount Election Day, there's one possibility that voters can do something about - avoid making election machine-related errors, says a University of Maryland researcher who led a comprehensive study of voter problems using touch screen and paper-based machines.

"Under the best of circumstances, simple voter mistakes can make the difference in a close election, so it's up to individuals to go into the booth prepared and aware of the pitfalls," says Paul S. Herrnson, the University of Maryland political scientist who led a multi-year, multi-state study comparing voter use of electronic and paper/optical scan systems. The research team included political scientists, computer scientists and psychologists.

"In our experiments, even with the simplest ballot design and the most user-friendly machines, we found voters still cast their ballots for the wrong candidate about three percent of the time," Herrnson adds. "Depending on which polls you believe, that's enough of a margin to affect the outcome on Tuesday. Most often, when voters make a mistake, they not only fail to cast their ballot for the candidate they want, they end up voting for the opponent. So it's a double whammy."

Here are some common problems that showed up in the Herrnson team's research, "Voting Technology: The Not-so-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot": Herrnson recommends that voters take the following precautions to minimize the chance of errors: As for long-term solutions, Herrnson recommends greater care in the design and preparation of the ballots by election officials and increased education efforts to make sure voters are familiar with the machines and the ballot before they go to cast their votes.
The study involved a variety of tests of six voting systems: a paper ballot/optical scan system, a touch screen system, a system with a dial and buttons, and systems with and without paper trails, as well as systems used to add a paper trail to electronic machines. It was conducted by researchers from the Universities of Maryland, Rochester and Michigan.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The study's findings are available in book form published by the Brookings Institution: "Voting Technology: The Not-so-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot."

Additional information on the research:


Neil Tickner
Senior Media Relations Associate
University of Maryland
301-257-0073 (after-hours)

Paul Herrnson
Principal Investigator
301-405-4123 (office)

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