ASQ Quality Report Offers Solutions to Error-Proof Voting Machines

Change Should Be Buzzword in Voting Process

MILWAUKEE–(BUSINESS WIRE)–While U.S. presidential candidates are busy touting the need for policy change, there is little debate that Americas voting process itself needs serious change. But a few key quality procedures could help restore voter confidence, says the latest Quality Report from the American Society for Quality (ASQ), the worlds leading authority on quality improvement.

While the error-prone punch card machines that produced the infamous hanging-chad fiasco in Florida in 2000 have been virtually eliminated, other problems are still evident. Voting machine malfunctions in this years primaries in California, New Jersey and South Carolina have already caused major havocmachines failing to start on time or locking up mid-stream and not counting votes; paper-tape backups not matching vote totals from the machines; bad planning which led to a shortage of voting machines; and operator errors due to lack of proper training. So in this atmosphere of distrust and error-ridden elections, what can be done to improve the electronic voting processes?

Its very important for citizens to have as much trust in their voting systems as they have in their medical care systems or air travel, says ASQ quality expert Liz Keim, a past president of ASQ. So why not leverage some of the same basic tools that bring reliability to critical functions like medical care and air transport to solve quality problems that continue to plague our elections? she asks.

Basic quality approaches that Keim refers to include:

  • Establishing standardized procedures such as voting machine start-up protocols, voter instruction procedures, and steps for secure handling of ballots and equipment;
  • Implementing simple checklists based on those standardized procedures; and
  • Adequate testing of proposed solutions.

The Human Factor

On votings frontlinesin more than 100,000 polling places nationwidethe mostly volunteer polling work is stretched very thin. To make matters worse, these workers often receive inadequate training.

The people running our polling places are frequently the overlooked link in the system, states Keim. You dont send out a waiter to serve dinners without adequate training, and you dont send a hospital lab tech to draw blood if theyve never done it before, so why do we seem so unconcerned about having the right people with the right training run something as important as our elections? Keim advocates strict adherence to polling-place regimens that include:

  • Personnel training that focuses on critical points in the system where problems are likely to occur;
  • Standardized and documented procedures; and
  • Implementation of checklists similar to the pre-flight checklists used by pilots.

Audits Complement Paper Voting Trails

Advocacy groups have placed great emphasis on creating voter-verifiable paper trails to preclude fraud and increase citizen confidence that votes are being recorded correctly. But paper trails alone arent enough. Keim says that audits, a common quality assurance practice, could aid the election process in two ways:

  • Post-election audits of election results would detect anomalies that indicate either fraud or systemic errors in the voting equipment. In this type of audit, paper records from randomly selected machines and precincts are compared to the voting systems electronic records. Currently, only 17 out of the 30 states that mandate a paper voting record for electronic systems also mandate audits.
  • Audits against an established standard. The Election Assistance Commission is now working to establish such a standard of best practice for use by local and state governments. This audit of election systems (processes, procedures and equipment) would take place in the months prior to an election and provide a much better understanding of voting systems.

Students Engineer New Voting System

Is it possible that the millennium generation might have an answer? Taz Daughtrey, a computer science instructor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and editor of ASQs journal, Software Quality Professional, believes students in his undergraduate software engineering class can design a better, more reliable electronic voting system.

We can bring quality tools and software engineering principles to bear to give voters much more confidence in voting, says Daughtrey.

Teams of students are working from the ground up, analyzing all aspects of the elections system, including legal requirements, and dissecting the engineering aspects of voting systems. They are designing computer/voter interfaces, validation and testing routines, and security provisions that ensure that votes are captured and recorded accurately and confidentially. To test their designs, they use data from student elections on the campus. Results will be available by end of April.

Daughtrey believes the students work can shed light on ways to take advantage of the best new technology to improve voting and enhance voter confidence. He believes electronic systems hold great promise for elections. But, he acknowledges that the complexity of electronic voting is a two-edged sword because it has great potential for error-proofing, but that same complexity can introduce reliability concerns.

Taking as much mystery as possible out of the voting processthrough audits, better trained personnel and systems that are more efficient and clear voter instructionsis really the best way to achieve greater transparency and help to restore the publics confidence, says Daughtrey.

The American Society for Quality,, has been the worlds leading authority on quality for more than 60 years. With more than 93,000 individual and organizational members, the professional association advances learning, quality improvement and knowledge exchange to improve business results, and to create better workplaces and communities worldwide. As champion of the quality movement, ASQ offers technologies, concepts, tools and training to quality professionals, quality practitioners and everyday consumers, encouraging all to Make Good Great®. ASQ has been the sole administrator of the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award since 1991. Headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis., ASQ is a founding partner of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a prominent quarterly economic indicator, and also produces the Quarterly Quality Report.