Tensions are mounting as we hurtle towards Election Day this Tuesday, yet with all the focus on who’s voting and where, most of us have put little thought into another essential part of the election process: the voting ballot itself. There are significant issues with the mechanics of voting, including the design of ballots and instructions for using them. Philip Kortum is a psychology professor at Rice University who studies how people interact with voting systems in real-world settings. He and Michael Byrne, also at Rice, recently co-authored a paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science that delves into the many issues that can arise during the voting process when poorly designed ballot systems trick people into voting incorrectly—or not at all. Here he answers some questions from contributor Catherine Caruso about what can go wrong. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

What are the main types of balloting problems you encountered during your research?
There are four general classes of major voting issues we see with balloting. We've got ballot design issues in candidate voting, we've got instructional issues (issues relating to how officials tell people how to vote), we've got issues related to language on the ballot, and then there is just the way people interact with voting systems in general.

Can you provide some examples of these issues?
When we talk about interface issues associated with how the ballot is put together, I think the Florida butterfly ballot [in the 2000 presidential election] is the classic example, where the layout of the ballot itself caused people to make errors.

Ballot instructions are often mandated by state legislatures but are written by local election officials, so often they're either too confusing or too dense. They'll describe something that could be described simply by using lots of words, or they may not describe the situation in the same way the user would think of it.

We also talk about confusing ballot language. We see this quite frequently, where ballot initiatives are written in ways that don't really reflect the way the voting public might be thinking about it. We're going through an issue in Houston this year where we're talking about recapture of property taxes, and the balloting language is very, very confusing.

And then people may become overburdened with the technology or by the circumstances surrounding the voting situation. We talk about, for example, the problem of people completing their ballots and then walking away without pressing the “cast” button, or completing their paper ballot and then walking out of the balloting station with it. In electronic voting systems, the phenomenon is so common that it has a name—the “fleeing voter problem.” Voters believe they're done, so they walk away, and the election officials are left to determine, should they press the cast button? Or maybe they don't see this and the next person comes into the voting booth—do they press the cast button?

What other problems come up with electronic voting systems?
The way the technology is implemented can confuse people. Sometimes the devices look like they're touch screens but they're not, and so people try to interact with them in weird ways. Or the data entry device is unusual. There's a balloting system that uses a wheel that you turn to move through the different selections, and that's unusual, you don't see wheel interfaces on most computers. Over the last couple of years, these systems have begun to reach the end of their service lives, and because of the many problems people have encountered with them, many jurisdictions are now transitioning back to some form of paper balloting.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to creating ballots that are well designed?
I think we've got two sets of problems. One is that the system is completely decentralized. The states are the ones who set the foundational rules for the elections, but every county creates its own ballots and its own rules about how it's going to conduct elections. And so. we've got thousands of jurisdictions creating their own ballots, and the election officials are doing their absolute best, but they're not trained in psychological science, and so they may not understand all the issues that could arise.

I think the other issue is that it's not like you can create a ballot once and then say, Okay, this is perfect, and reuse it. You create a ballot, and then for the next election you have to create another ballot, and it may have different constraints, such as more races. So you’re constantly changing the content of what you’re presenting to users.

Are there a few overarching things that a good ballot does that makes it easy to understand and to use?
Well, certainly a good ballot has instructions that are exceptionally clear and easy to read. If it's an electronic system, the navigation is very clear and allows voters to move around the interface quickly and easily. And the system will use color in appropriate ways to help voters understand what's happening. For example, if a voter failed to vote in a race, perhaps it would highlight that on the review screen using color. A lot of it is trying to create the greatest clarity in not only each of the races, but also in how voters move from race to race. And that’s true even for paper ballots. You want each race to be clearly identified, labeled and segmented from the other races, so voters can easily move from section to section.

What are things that we can do as voters to make sure that we're voting successfully and not making any errors?
One of the best things voters can do is to prepare. Many jurisdictions will provide sample ballots—you can go through and mark a sample ballot from the comfort and convenience of your home, so you have more time to work through it, and if you have any questions, you can seek that information out. Then, when you go to the polling station to cast your actual ballot, you'll be very well prepared—there won't be any surprises. I also think voters should be very careful about reviewing the final screen or checking their ballots to make sure that they're actually casting their vote as they intend.

Is there anything you encountered during your research that was particularly surprising or interesting?
One of the things that always fascinates me is that people are often very quick to blame the voter, and say, I can't believe someone couldn't figure that out. But you have to remember that these are people who have made lots of conscious decisions to say, I want to participate in the democratic process, and so when they make these kinds of mistakes, it means that there's something about the system that is causing this to happen. Often it's the design.