Saturday, September 24, 2005


election usability: is it about close elections?

I doubt many people outside New Zealand are aware of the recent elections here, given that they fell on the same weekend as the headline-grabbing German and Afghan elections. To catch you up: New Zealand has divided election outcome, with both major parties gaining nearly identical share of votes, and neither in a obvious position to form a majority coalition. It is not so dramatic (yet) as Germany, but nearly so. Incidentally, while I'm no expert, I understand New Zealand borrowed extensively from Germany's electoral system when devising its sometimes confusing Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system NZ implemented a decade ago.

As the election outcome remains unresolved, all parties are awaiting the results of overseas votes. This is no small matter, as at least 10% of New Zealanders live overseas (in Australia mainly.)

On the surface of things, New Zealand's elections would not seem the material of usability problems. New Zealand uses quaintly old-fashioned paper ballots, with simple tick boxes to indicate one's choices. It is so low tech it makes Afghanistan's multi-page lists with photo mug shots of candidates look high tech.

Paper is great, until it meets the web. Now, all those expat New Zealanders were given an opportunity to submit their paper ballot as well, but they had to use my least favorite software program to do so. I read in the Dominion Post today that some expats are complaining that they couldn't read the election form in Acrobat reader, which rendered the names of the candidates as blank. The Green Party in particular is complaining about Acrobat, as it stands to gain a seat in parliament is it gets a few more votes, or alternatively, lose all its seats if it loses a few votes and falls below 5% of total party votes. (Some commentators assert that the Greens get a disproportional share of votes from expats -- I have no way of knowing.) Acrobat Reader might just have the power to throw the outcome of the New Zealand elections one way or another.

What to me is even more strange is how the overseas votes are received. After printing out the ballots in Acrobat reader, voters are expected to fax them in. I can see at least two usability problems with voting by fax. First is fraud. In an age where identity theft seems easier than ever, how on earth do the election officials verify that the ballot is cast by the real person entitled to cast the ballot. I don't know what arrangements where made -- there must have been some -- but it would seem far short of the purple thumbs used in the Afghan election. The second usability problem concerns knowing that one's ballot has been received. Ballot by mail is not foolproof to be sure, but it is probably more reliable than sending a fax. The rule of thumb for any important fax is to phone to verify that is was received, and got into the right hands. How frustrating it must be to fax a ballot, only to wonder if it went to the right fax machine.

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