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These Texas voting machines reveal a basic truth about bad design

Texas voting machines are switching votes and state officials are trotting out a familiar excuse: Users are to blame.

These Texas voting machines reveal a basic truth about bad design
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In Texas, some voters using Hart eSlate machines have reported that the machines suddenly changed their votes. The state’s secretary of state Rolando Pablos claims that the problem is due to user error, but there’s clearly something else at play: a design flaw that could have implications for an estimated 5 million voters in 82 counties who are using this machine to vote in the 2018 midterms.

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When any voter used the machine’s “straight ballot” option–meaning that it will fill in all votes for one party–and then pressed a button while the page was loading, a bug in the eSlate’s software paired with a confusing UI suddenly switched the top race on the ballot to the other party. Activist and political commentator Leah McElrath experienced this when she voted last week: Instead of selecting all Democratic candidates like she wanted, the system switched out Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke for Republican Senate candidate Ted Cruz–one of the nation’s most hotly contested races. Luckily she noticed the error, along with about 20 other people who have called in the problem to Pablos. But there’s no way to know how many people didn’t check their ballots and accidentally voted for someone they didn’t want.

This isn’t a new problem. McLennan County’s Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe told the Waco Tribune she’s gotten calls about the same issue in previous election years. “The same story has happened in multiple elections,” Steven Sockwell, the vice president of marketing for the machine’s maker Hart InterCivic, told NBC News on Friday, blaming the problem on 16-year-old technology. However, he insists “there was no flipping then and there’s not any now” because  the issue is due to user error, not a bug in the machine.

In 2017, a study of 88 voters in Texas’s Harris County found favorable usability scores of the eSlate system among people who’d just voted, but the authors write that “data from the laboratory and anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the system still suffers from significant usability problems.” That paper also cited a study of 1,500 voters in 2008, which found that the eSlate system had the lowest usability scores as compared to five other common electronic voting machines. In 2008, the Texas Democratic party sued the state’s secretary of state over a similar problem with the machines’ straight ticket voting feature, but the 5th district court upheld the secretary’s decision to use the eSlates, saying that the secretary “made a reasonable, politically neutral, and nondiscriminatory choice to certify” the machines. The machines were last certified as compliant with federal and state law post-lawsuit, in 2009. Sam Taylor, spokesman for Pablos’s office, says the office has no authority to force Hart InterCivic to update the machines because they are in compliance with federal and state law. To address the switching problem, Pablos has added more signs to polling areas reminding voters to check their selections and issued alerts to Texas voters.

The continued use of these machines echoes developers’ and politicians’ belief that users are responsible for figuring out how to use technology, not the other way around. It’s a familiar refrain, one that the great usability expert Don Norman has been documenting for decades. “What happens far too often is programmers can be disdainful toward people that aren’t as familiar with tech as we are, which is why you have this attitude of ‘blame the user’ if you can’t figure it out, which is objectively wrong,” says software engineer and Gamergate figure Brianna Wu, who lost her bid for Congress in 2018 but is planning to run again in 2020 in Massachusetts. “I don’t think you should have to be computer-literate to have your vote counted,” Wu says. “That’s a false choice. It’s going to eliminate a lot of people who need their voice heard.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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