Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Minnesota Senate Recount: Is There HCI Research to Be Had?

The drama here in Minnesota these days is the recount of the U.S. Senate race -- and it's dramatic: a difference of a couple of hundred votes out of 2.5 million cast, a hand recount, going to court, etc. Kind of like Florida in 2000, but more competent. (Minnesota Public Radio has good background coverage.)

But the most interesting part is the "challenged" ballots: these are ballots where the election judge doing the recounting wanted to classify the ballot one way, but a campaign observer objected. There are a few thousand of these ballots; most of them are fairly clearly frivolous, being done for PR reasons, and now the number of challenges is fluctuating day by day as the campaigns withdraw and un-withdraw challenges.

These ballots are now before the Canvassing Board, a 5-member panel convened by the Minnesota Secretary of State to determine the final disposition of each. You can watch the proceedings, live during the next few days or archived. Here's a direct link to one 90-minute segment of today's proceedings. (I was only able to make the link work on Internet Explorer. However, don't use Explorer until you've patched the latest nasty zero-day vulnerability!)

I find the process fascinating. Each board member, and a lawyer for each campaign, has a binder containing photocopies of each challenged ballot. For each ballot, the committee chair (MNSOS Mark Ritchie) announces which ballot is being considered, and then makes a motion with a proposed disposition ("I move to reject the challenge and allocate this ballot to Coleman"). Simultaneously, the board members and lawyers examine their photocopies, and an aide passes the original ballot down the line of board members. The process takes a few tens of seconds for a ballot where there's immediate agreement with the chair's motion, and maybe a couple of minutes if there's discussion.

Having the original ballots (Minnesota uses optical scan voting) is critical; some of the ballots which are clearly one way when viewing scans online are clearly something else when the original is viewed. (Example: The pen ran out of ink. The bubbles are blank in the scan, but on the original you can see the indentations in the paper where the voter tried to mark -- clear voter intent, which means the vote must be counted under Minnesota law.)

Also, if the decision takes more than a few tens of seconds, the camera switches to a laptop feed, where there is someone manipulating a PDF viewer to show the ballot. You can see the mouse cursor and UI manipulations and everything.

It's a very human process, with synchronization all accomplished by verbal announcement, at least one synchronization error ("Mr. Secretary, I missed the decision on ballot Minneapolis foo"), and occasional dry humor on the part of the committee members.

Bottom line, I think there's some HCI research with a great story here. I think the basic premise is a case study of the human processes going into this laborious and monotonous task, with some participants having extreme vested interests, some but limited computerization, the need for high public visibility, and a very high-value outcome.

Who's gonna do it?

(Crossposted to the GroupLens research blog.)

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