[E-voting] more on proof-reading printouts from DREs

Catherine Ansbro cansbro at eircom.net
Thu Jun 14 12:19:38 IST 2007


Bev Harris had this interesting response to my BlackBoxVoting.org 
posting about the research showing most voter's don't catch errors on 
screen or on a printout.  [See the original for easier-to-read formatting]


Proofreading from a computer screen is generally considered more 
error-prone (even!) than proofreading from paper.

*I just published this information in a comment on the BradBlog story:*

I'm glad to see this study. Just had a very passionate debate in New 
Hampshire with Dr. Ron Rivest about this very topic.

Studies on cognitive processes have been very clear on this point, and 
go back 50 years. There is a vast difference between ACTING on a 
document, such as writing on it or marking on it, and PROOFREADING a 
document. The brain is, not surprisingly, set up to take shortcuts. 
Especially when one assumes that there will be no errors, as most people 
do when computers print out something they have seen on a screen, 
people's brain is programmed literally to skip over those errors.

The cognitive process of taking "shortcuts" in visual perceptive tasks 
should not surprise us. If our brains didn't do this, we'd have to 
ponderously analyze each thing we look at. That ... is ... red ... 
somewhat round ... has a stem ... and ... therefore ... must ... be ... 
an ... apple. No. The brain just tells you APPLE.

Especially with print proofreading tasks, our brain loves to take 
shortcuts. In fact, in Psychology 101 textbooks there are sample 
paragraphs where an amazingly high percent of people ALWAYS misread 
words put together in certain ways, because of the brain's tendency to 
take shortcuts.

This is such a strong tendency that professional proofreaders --- and 
let's not kid ourselves, VVPATs and ballot marking devices involve 
PROOFREADING skills, not just reading skills --- many professional 
proofreaders read paragraphs BACKWARDS to block the brain's annoying 
(for a proofreader) tendency to skip over errors.

*Academics are presumed to be speaking (1) in their area of expertise 
and (2) after applying rigor*

Here's another point. I mentioned that I was debating this with Dr. Ron 
Rivest, a cryptography and mathematics expert. One of the things I took 
him to task for --- and I take every computer scientist to task for --- 
is the failure to use a disclaimer when issuing opinions about voters 
using VVPATS vs. marking a ballot themselves. Rivest told me he was 
unaware of studies showing that proofreading a ballot was inferior to 
marking it yourself. I told him:

1) Since cryptography and mathematics are an entirely different field of 
study than cognitive process research, one wouldn't expect you to carry 
around a compilation of the research in your head --- and you should be 
clear that you have no expertise whatsoever in these areas when you 

2) People assume that academics, even if a subject is not their 
specialization, apply a certain rigor to evaluating information. Such 
rigor would involve doing a review of the literature and examining 
studies for replication and further clarification. When an academic 
pronounces an opinion, there is an assumption that they have followed 
scientific procedure and applied appropriate rigor. That's simply not 
the case with the current crop of computer guys who presume to advise 
and write legislation on the very multi-disciplinary field of elections.

To which Rivest, who is a very nice guy by the way, replied that in 
academia everyone knows to discount opinions when they are not the 
person's area of expertise. To which I replied that such is NOT the case 
when "experts" provide input to congress, or sit on panels, and start 
blabbing about things not in their area of expertise. To which he 
replied that he will certainly take that point to heart and start being 
more careful about stating disclaimers on opinions not in his area.

*Elections are a multidisciplinary endeavor*

This lengthy post is to illustrate the importance of bringing in people 
who actually understand cognitive processes, rather than propping up 
mathematicians and computer programmers to pronounce their OPINION about 
what voting system is most appropriate.

And by the way, as one with a degree in applied psychology and decades 
of experience in writing and publishing fields which involve 
PROOFREADING, I can tell you that the number of studies that show the 
high number of errors for proofreading tasks and the studies on the 
brain's tendency for closure (shortcutting) are huge.

You cannot teach people to proofread by sticking a sign up that says 
"check your ballot" and many people will not be able to proofread 
accurately even when they take extra time and try hard.

*How many people have reading disabilities?*

And while we're bending over backward for disabilities, has anyone 
thought about the impact of forcing DYSLEXICS to proofread their ballot?

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