Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Spitball and the Touch-Screen Voting Machine

Spitball(n): a baseball pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance

Touch-screen (n): a device which can detect the location of touches within the display area; highly vulnerable to the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance

Touchscreens are sensitive to foreign substances being applied by accident or otherwise.

Have you ever had to clean your touchscreen phone so it'd work right? Especially if you got something on your fingers, it's easy to mess up a touchscreen so that parts of it don't register, or register the wrong thing when you touch it.

Voting machines that use touch screens must have the same problem. A foreign substance can accidentally or otherwise throw off where the computer thinks you've put your finger.

Think about the reports that touch-screen voting machines are registering votes for McCain when the voting touched the "Obama" box, such as October 18: More W.Va. voters say machines are switching votes. These could be happenstance; they could be coincidence; or they could be the result of deliberate action.

It doesn't really matter whether it's from mistake or criminal action. You and I, as honest citizens, would never ever think of messing up a voting machine's touch screen on purpose, but we could do it by accident. If we touched one candidate's icon with a finger bearing a foreign substance, such as transparent lip gloss or any of the items mentioned by the spitball pitcher in Bull Durham, the invisible residue left might make that spot unusable for the next voter.

What we might do by accident, a criminal can do on purpose and more effectively.

It is impossible to prevent a voter from accidentally or deliberately "throwing a spitter". While a baseball umpire has the right to frisk a pitcher, and the pitch itself is done in public, the act of voting is totally private. Voting inspectors cannot frisk voters, and TV cameras cannot watch the voter pick a candidate.

It might be nice if voting inspectors could test the machines during the voting day, but no machine currently certified for use allows during-the-day testing. (CORRECTION: Sequoia's machines have a Yellow "Manual Mode" Button that lets you vote as many times as you want; this lets you test the integrity of the voting process in the same way that a shotgun lets you test a party balloon ... BOOM!)

Instead, to protect against both accidental and deliberate damage, what we have to do is clean the machine after EVERY voter. Use the alcohol wipes (...or whatever substitute is provided...) to clean the voting machine surface after each use.

There must be no exceptions. If you clean after some voters but not after others, there can be suspicion of bias; it's very important to treat everyone the same; there may be lots of fighting over this election, and it's important to avoid adding fuel to the fire.

Cleaning is probably important for sanitary purposes as well. Imagine the build-up of germ-bearing substances on those things. When you touch a touchscreen, you're touching something that a heck of a lot of other people touched, and you don't know where those hands have been.

Now, a smart voter won't trust a touch screen for many reasons; if you didn't vote on a paper ballot, you are basically trusting software that cannot be inspected. There are also ways to mess up a Touch-Screen Voting Machine that don't involve alcohol wipes, but since I have no solution for them, I'm not going to spread that knowledge. Paper ballots, of course, have their own problems, but these problems are well understood and can be guarded against.

However, due to the misleadingly titled Help America Vote Act, I and other voting inspectors must offer Insecure Touch-Screen Voting as an option equal to the paper ballot - or resign our positions, which would help no-one.

Only a criminal would even consider leaving residue on a touch-screen machine with the intent of making it difficult or impossible to vote for an opposing candidate, but if you were to think like a criminal, you would see that it is very easy to do. And, of course, it could be done by accident as well. Therefore, to truly Help America Vote, every voting inspector will pay especial attention to cleaning machines after every voter. Check with your state or county voting officials to ensure that this is the procedure, and if it is not, ask why not?

Isn't your vote worth a disposable alcohol wipe?
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