Problems with Voting Systems Still Require an Engineering Solution, Says UB Professor

Release Date: October 26, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. – Just days before the presidential election, problems with voting systems that were identified in the 2000 election persist because engineering solutions have not been applied, says a University at Buffalo industrial engineer.

"The debate after the last presidential election was very politicized, but what everyone was arguing about was an engineering problem," says Ann Bisantz, Ph.D., associate professor of industrial engineering in UB's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

"Unfortunately, the solutions that the scientific and engineering communities have developed since then haven't yet been uniformly implemented."

Bisantz conducts human-factors research, funded by the National Science Foundation, which is designed to find the root cause of human errors that occur when humans interact with machines. Much of her work is aimed at making systems in complex applications like manufacturing, aviation and the military more usable for people.

Following the 2000 presidential election, Bisantz developed a teaching case study based on the engineering issues that arose in that election, called "Election 2000: A Case Study in Human Factors and Design." It is available at

"Whether they're developing microwave ovens or airline cockpits, human-factors engineers ask the same basic questions about all systems," she says. "With a voting system, we would ask: 'Do people know what they have to do to cast a vote?' 'Can they physically execute the required actions and see or hear what they need to see or hear?' 'Can they check to see if they have made the choice they intended to make?' 'Can they easily make changes if they have made a mistake?'

"We shouldn't be making voting systems that are difficult for people to use," she continues. "We should ensure that the systems that people use allow them to cast the votes that they intended to cast."

A system that is hard to use increases the potential for voters to make mistakes, she says.

"With punch-card voting, for example, some people might find that it's hard to grasp the small stylus used to punch the card," she says. "And if a voter's hands shake, can they use it? Are people who don't have fine motor control capable of voting with this system?"

Bisantz adds that a user's physical disabilities also increase the potential for errors in voting.

"For example, the mechanical lever system is not easily accessible to people in wheelchairs," she says. "And just having the strength to properly move the handle that opens and closes the curtain may also pose problems for the elderly and others."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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