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April 8, 2002

Electronic newsroom



Brookhaven Lab Scientist Helps the Federal Election Commission Revise Guidelines for Voting Systems

UPTON, NY - A scientist from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory has been helping the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to review and revise federal guidelines on voting systems. Specifically, the FEC invited Brookhaven’s John O’Hara to review and make recommendations for revising the human-factors aspects of federal voting guidelines.

Brookhaven Cognitive Psychologist John O'Hara

As a cognitive psychologist who specializes in the ways people interface with complex systems, O’Hara has the expertise to evaluate the human factors that led to problems with the butterfly ballot used in Florida’s Palm Beach County in the 2000 U.S. presidential election and make recommendations to prevent those types of problems from occurring no matter what type of voting technology is used: paper, mechanical, or computer-based systems. O’Hara gave the FEC numerous recommendations to improve voting standards, which are being incorporated into the FEC’s updated National Voting System Standard. The standard provides voluntary engineering guidelines and performance standards for voting systems in the U.S.

“I study the way in which people process information in complex systems, such as nuclear power plants and space robotic devices, and how the interfaces to those systems can be designed to support rapid and accurate understanding of the situation. The same principles apply to both complex and simple systems,” O’Hara said. “Whether you’re designing a simple voting ballot or a complex control room for a nuclear power plant, the systems have to be designed to minimize human error.”

With funding from Brookhaven, O’Hara was able to provide the FEC with guidance on such voting system features as the design of ballot information displays and navigation aids. This guidance reflects principles of how people will interpret voting system rules and how human perception will group information in the ballot display. The guidance also addresses principles to minimize human error through the use of proper design features. Among O’Hara’s major recommendations to improve voting systems are:

• Organize information on the ballot in a consistent and standardized manner.

• Give voters clear and simple instructions.

• Provide access to sample ballots, and give voters an opportunity to practice before they vote, especially if using an electronic system.

• Provide all necessary information in one place for casting each vote to minimize attention shifts and interruptions. There should be no need to turn pages or use several screens.

• Design the voting system to allow voters to control the pace and sequence of their use of the ballot. Voters should be able to move freely back and forth.

• Provide feedback on whether or not a vote was properly registered. When feasible, the system should prevent unacceptable voter inputs, such as voting for too many candidates.

• Provisions should be made to accommodate the unique demands of all voters, such as seated locations for elderly or disabled voters.

• A means for correcting a vote response should be readily available.

• Voters should be able to review all their votes prior to final submission.

• Test and evaluate each voting system to ensure that it has achieved its design goals. These tests will be based on the feedback and performance of samples of voters and can help identify aspects of design that may be unclear to voters.


The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies. Brookhaven also builds and operates major facilities available to university, industrial, and government scientists. The Laboratory is managed by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited liability company founded by Stony Brook University and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.