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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    BNL Scientist Helps Revise FEC Voting Systems Guidelines

    A scientist from the U.S. Department of Energy’#146;s Brookhaven National Laboratory(BNL) has been helping the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to review and revisefederal guidelines on voting systems. Specifically, the FEC invited Brookhaven’#146;sJohn O’#146;Hara to evaluate the human-factors aspects of federal voting guidelines.

    As a cognitive psychologist, specializing in the ways people interface withcomplex systems, O’#146;Hara evaluated the human factors that led to problemswith the butterfly ballot used in Florida’#146;s Palm Beach County in the 2000U.S. presidential election. He offered various suggestions for preventing thosetypes of inconsistencies from occurring, regardless of the voting technologyto be used: paper, mechanical, or computer-based systems.

    O’#146;Hara gave the FEC numerous recommendations to improve voting standards,which are being incorporated into the FEC’#146;s updated National Voting SystemStandard. The standard provides voluntary engineering guidelines and performancestandards for voting systems in the United States.

    ‘I study the way in which people process information in complex systems,such as nuclear power plants and space robotic devices, and how the interfacesto those systems can be designed to support rapid and accurate understandingof the situation. The same principles apply to both complex and simple systems,’O’#146;Hara said. ‘Whether you’#146;re designing a simple voting ballotor a complex control room for a nuclear power plant, the systems have to bedesigned to minimize human error.’

    Receiving funding from Brookhaven, O’#146;Hara was able to provide the FEC withguidance on design of ballot information displays and navigation aids. Thisguidance reflects principles of how people will interpret voting system rulesand how human perception will group information in the ballot display.

    The guidance also addresses principles to minimize human error through the useof proper design features. Among O’#146;Hara’#146;s major recommendations toimprove voting systems are:

    o Organize information on the ballot in a consistent and standardized manner.
    o Give voters clear and simple instructions.
    o Provide access to sample ballots, and give voters an opportunity to practicebefore they vote, especially if using an electronic system.
    o Provide all necessary information in one place for casting each vote to minimizeattention shifts and interruptions. There should be no need to turn pages oruse several screens.
    o Design the voting system to allow voters to control the pace and sequenceof their use of the ballot. Voters should be able to move freely back and forth.
    o Provide feedback on whether or not a vote was properly registered. When feasible,the system should prevent unacceptable voter inputs, such as voting for toomany candidates.
    o Provisions should be made to accommodate the unique demands of all voters,such as seated locations for elderly or disabled voters.
    o A means for correcting a vote response should be readily available.
    o Voters should be able to review all their votes prior to final submission.
    o Test and evaluate each voting system to ensure that it has achieved its designgoals.

    These tests will be based on the feedback and performance of sample individualsand can help identify aspects of design that may be unclear to voters.

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