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Going Forward Into the Past: New York’s New Electronic Voting System

Amid this year’s sweeping changes in the mid-term elections, new electronic voting machines were put to test in New York State. MFA candidate Stephanie Aaron reports on the voting experience with design in mind and suggests there may be ample room for improvement:

I have to admit I am very sentimental about the old grey voting booths—they haven’t changed since I was a little girl when my parents would take me into the booth and let me pull the giant red lever. Nevertheless, as a technology-loving interaction designer, I was curious to see what the new system would be like. I’d sum it up in one word—disappointing. To quote one of my neighbors: “I hate the new system. It’s going backwards. It’s double the work. Why isn’t it completely electronic? How is using a pen progress?”

I spoke with my thesis advisor, Sylvia Harris, about the new machines. Harris was involved with AIGA’s Design for Democracy project which looked into how design can make voting easier and more enjoyable. The project eventually led to the creation of federal design guidelines for voting. She also worked with the University of Minnesota studying the intersection of design and voting. Harris explained, “Research has shown that both the old mechanical system and fully electronic machines can be easily tampered with. The current system is safest, allowing for paper ballots to be re-counted if there is a problem with the electronic portion.”

Paper sign posted to show the direction in which to vote using the new electronic voting system in NYC.
Paper sign posted to show the direction in which to vote using the new electronic voting system in NYC.

We’ve been talking a lot in our classes lately about “design thinking,” how and why it should be applied to business and government. Unfortunately, there was no design thinking involved in the the new system. It’s cumbersome. What was one step is now two steps: the filling out of the ballot and the scanning, created longer waiting times. In many cases the “privacy booth” to fill out ballots isn’t very private: people can walk right behind the voter. Not to mention the sad design of the booths, adorned with the Board of Elections seal, an American flag with the word “Vote.” Most of the complaints I’ve heard and read about revolve around the ballot’s poor typography. It is illegible with small, thin, condensed type and an unclear hierarchy of information. Overall there is a lack of cohesion in the look and feel of the system.

Some suggested improvementsBuild in emotional satisfaction: I’m not alone in missing the old booths. Harris spoke to people before and after the election and the single thing they said was they missed the satisfaction of pulling the lever. The new system feels physically disembodied.

Proofread and edit: The ballots instructed voters to mark the oval above the candidate’s name, when in fact it was the oval below their name that was correct. Editing could have simplified and clarified the instructions.

Involve professional designers: New York has a huge design community. Have them design the system and its components.

Develop service diagrams: Illustrate the set up of scanners and privacy booths for the optimum flow of people and maximum privacy for booths.

Test early and often: The new system was only widely tested in the September primary, which was too close to the general election to make any necessary changes.

Stephanie Aaron, Class of 2011

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