Innocent bugs in voting machines?

I'm starting to really enjoy Tim Lee's blogging over at the Technology Liberation Front. He tackles problems with electronic voting machines that have already occurred in Florida where you press the name of one candidate and the other is registered: guess is that the touch-sensitive electronics are mis-aligned with the screen, so that the machine registers touches as being offset from their actual location. For example, suppose that the screen is mis-aligned such that each touch is registered as being one inch above its actual position on the screen. In that case, if the Republican candidate's button were an inch above the Democratic candidate's button, pressing the screen in the center of the Democrat's button would register as a press in the center of the Republican button. To vote for the Democrat, you would have to touch the screen an inch below the Democrat's button. Voter who weren't paying attention would accidentally vote for the Republican without noticing.

Now, I've seen this behavior on my PDA phone: sometimes the screen's sensitivity to pressure (such as from the stylus or a finger pressing an area on the screen) becomes misaligned and so it looks like you're pressing something pretty far from what you're actually pressing. It's a glitch - a problematic one, to be sure, but far too obvious to constitute actual fraud.

However, Lee points out a side benefit to the glitch I hadn't thought of:

But here's the problem: if such glitches are common, they become a good way to mask real tampering. You could, for example, write a program that simulates this glitch in Republican-heavy precincts, while working correctly in Democrat-controlled precincts. In a close election, that might be enough to tip things in favor of the Democrats, and it would be extremely hard to prove afterwards.

Sneaky. Voting is not just a surrender of personal and civic sovereignty to a ruler, now - the very act of surrender could be compromised! It's hardly more than a technicality, but if you care about that ineffable ritual we call "the vote", watch out.

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Written on Thursday, November 02, 2006