March 25, 2019

Finnish Court Orders Re-Vote After E-Voting Snafu

The Supreme Administrative Court of Finland has ruled that three municipal elections, the first in Finland to use electronic voting, must be redone because of voting machine problems. (English summary; ruling in Finnish)

The troubles started with a usability problem, which caused 232 voters (about 2% of voters) to leave the voting booth without fully casting their ballots. Electronic Frontiers Finland explains what went wrong:

It seems that the system required the voter to insert a smart card to identify the voter, type in their selected candidate number, then press “ok”, check the candidate details on the screen, and then press “ok” again. Some voters did not press “ok” for the second time, but instead removed their smart card from the voting terminal prematurely, causing their ballots not to be cast.

This usability issue was exacerbated by Ministry of Justice instructions, which specifically said that in order to cancel the voting process, the user should click on “cancel” and after that, remove the smart card. Thus, some voters did not realise that their vote had not been registered.

If you want to see what this looks like for a voter, check out the online demo of the voting process, from the Finnish Ministry of Justice (in English).

Well designed voting systems tend to have a prominent, clearly labeled control or action that the voter uses to officially cast his or her vote. This might be a big red “CAST VOTE” button. The Finnish system mistakenly used the same “OK” button used previously in the process, making voter mistakes more likely. Adding to the problem, the voter’s smart card was protruding from the front of the machine, making it all too easy for a voter to grab the card and walk away.

No voting machine can stop a “fleeing voter” scenario, where a voter simply walks away during the voting process (we conventionally say “fleeing” even if the voter leaves by mistake), but some systems are much better than others in this respect. Diebold’s touchscreen voting machines, for all their faults, got this design element right, pulling the voter’s smart card all of the way into the machine and ejecting it only when the voter was supposed to leave — thus turning the voter’s desire to return the smart card into a countermeasure against premature voter departure, rather than a cause of it. (ATM machines often use this same trick of holding the card inside the machine to stop the user from grabbing the card and walking away at the wrong time.) Some older lever machines use an even simpler method against fleeing voters: the same big red handle that casts the ballot also opens the curtains so the voter can leave.

I’d be curious to know what the rules are about fleeing voters in Finland. I know that New Jersey procedures say that if a voter leaves without performing the final step of pushing the “Cast Vote” button, poll workers are supposed to push the button on the voter’s behalf (without looking at the voter’s choices). Crucially, the design of the New Jersey voting machine (for all its faults) makes it almost certain that such a non-cast ballot will be discovered promptly — the machine makes a noise when the ballot is cast, and the machine will complain if the poll worker tries to enable the next voter’s ballot before the previous voter’s ballot has been cast.

It seems likely that the Finnish machine, in addition to its usability problems that led to fleeing voters, had other design/process problems that made a non-completed ballot less noticeable to poll workers. (I don’t know this for sure; the answer isn’t in any English-language document I have seen.)

Fortunately, the damage was not as bad as it might have been, because the e-voting system was used in only three municipalities, as a pilot program, rather than nationwide. Presumably, nationwide use of the flawed system is now unlikely.

Comments

  1. It’s interesting that parliamentary systems don’t (or can’t) suffer from “premature voting” (the opposite of the fleeing voter), simply because there is only one choice to make. These would seem to be sort of easy to fix: technological measures like the lever/currtain (maybe something not as big, but not allowing you to take the smartcard) for fleeing voters and a confirmation prompt for the premature voters. (For those interested, there is research on the frequency of ballots cast with unvoted races that shows older full-face systems like the Sequoia AVC Advantage and the Danaher ELECTronic 1242 suffer from both of these (obviously, complicated by the local policy of what to do with a fled ballot… e.g., in PA, the policy is the reverse of NJ)).

  2. One detail about the Finnish voting machines: they did not display any kind of warning if a card was removed prematurely. The machine would simply return to its initial state.

    I’ve heard anecdotal comments that the designers of the machines simply did not realize voters might remove the card before confirming their vote.

  3. That’s the biggest snafu i ever heard about voting machines… Anyway it’s a pilot program so not so serious..