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Verified Voting and Accessibility

At the Election Assistance Commission (EAC)'s Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC) meeting on January 18-19, 2005, a resolution entitled Voter Verifiability II was defeated.

I abstained on Resolution 13-05 - Voter Verifiability II because I am caught between two convictions.

  • First, we must have a durable, auditable, recountable record of each ballot, made at the time the vote is cast. Ideally, this record can be verified, at the time of voting, by the voter – the only person in a position to determine (with privacy), the accuracy of the record.
  • Second, we cannot create two classes of voters, those who can verify their vote and those who cannot. To start from a principle that a voting system can be considered accessible if a voter “could in principle verify the fundamental representation of his ballot through the use of some human proxy” is to value the privacy of some citizens more than others.

I have long maintained that we must find a solution that addresses both of these needs. Faced with a resolution that contains both provisions I support and those I cannot vote for, I abstained. I voted instead for Resolution 12-05 (Voter Verifiability I), which offers us the chance to "review methods of verification accessible by voters with disabilities” and to consider the different security requirements for systems with, and without, direct voter verification.

I realize that for some, the issue of voter verification to guard against malicious software in our voting systems is the single overriding issue in creating new voting systems standards. Although I also believe that this is an important issue, it is not for me the only consideration.

My focus is on the usability, accessibility and privacy of the systems–electronic or otherwise–used to vote and the goal of enabling all voters to mark their ballot accurately, efficiently and with confidence. I have long held the position that the entire voting process must be accessible. It is not acceptable to allow most voters to verify their ballot, but to exclude those with certain disabilities.

To quote from TGDC Resolution 6-05, passed at our meeting on January 19, “The voting population includes not only people with specifically identified disabilities but also the aging population, language minorities, and people with other special needs. A goal of voting system standards should be to accommodate, as much as possible, this wide range of abilities to ensure the greatest usability and accessibility of those systems.”

It is unfortunate that in the history of US elections, we have paid little attention to the needs of those with disabilities. Ten years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, we still find many polling places with poor access, or poorly set up to enable voters with disabilities to vote. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) included provisions to allow some 56 million Americans with disabilities a way to vote independently and privately, and gives us a chance to correct this gap:

  • ACCESSIBILITY FOR INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES…“That the voting system shall be accessible for individuals with disabilities, including non-visual accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.” - Section 301(a)(3)(A)

It is also unfortunate that computer and other information systems have been developed with more attention paid to technology than to the people who will use or be affected by them. We could have created usable, accessible user interfaces from the beginning. But we did not, and we must have standards to correct the problems this gap has caused. One is the question of how to recount an election. HAVA makes several requirements of voting systems regarding auditable records:

  • IN GENERAL… That systems “permit the voter to verify (in a private and independent manner) the votes selected by the voter on the ballot before the ballot is cast and counted.” - Section 301(a)(1)(A)(i)
  • MANUAL AUDIT CAPACITY…“The voting system shall produce a permanent paper record with a manual audit capacity for such system.” - Section 301(a)(2)(B)(i)
  • MANUAL AUDIT CAPACITY… “The voting system shall provide the voter with an opportunity to change the ballot or correct any error before the permanent paper record is produced.” - Section 301(a)(2)(B)(ii)

The value of an audit record is not insignificant. The loss, for example, of over 4,000 votes in North Carolina would have been prevented by a such a record, even if those records had not been verified directly by each voter. However, if verification is part of the voting process, it must be accessible. I believe that it can be done, if we start from the view that both are requirements.

To create standards that “disenfranchise by design” (as Susan King Roth put it so eloquently) is to build inequity into the system. I believe we can do better.

Whitney Quesenbery
January 27, 2005


Whitney Quesenbery works on user experience and usability with a passion for clear communication. She is the co-author of Storytelling for User Experience from Rosenfeld Media. Before she was seduced by a little beige computer, Whitney was a theatrical lighting designer. The lessons from the theatre stay with her in creating user experiences. She can be reached at www.WQusability.com