A Republican Conspiracy in Florida?

by on November 1, 2006 · 6 comments

The Miami Herald is reporting that at least one voter in Florida claims that voting machines registered a vote for a Republican after he attempted to vote for a Democrat:

Debra A. Reed voted with her boss on Wednesday at African-American Research Library and Cultural Center near Fort Lauderdale. Her vote went smoothly, but boss Gary Rudolf called her over to look at what was happening on his machine. He touched the screen for gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis, a Democrat, but the review screen repeatedly registered the Republican, Charlie Crist.

That’s exactly the kind of problem that sends conspiracy theorists into high gear–especially in South Florida, where a history of problems at the polls have made voters particularly skittish. A poll worker then helped Rudolf, but it took three tries to get it right, Reed said.

”I’m shocked because I really want . . . to trust that the issues with irregularities with voting machines have been resolved,” said Reed, a paralegal. “It worries me because the races are so close.”

Broward Supervisor of Elections spokeswoman Mary Cooney said it’s not uncommon for screens on heavily used machines to slip out of sync, making votes register incorrectly. Poll workers are trained to recalibrate them on the spot–essentially, to realign the video screen with the electronics inside. The 15-step process is outlined in the poll-workers manual.

The first time I read that, it sounded like nonsense, but after re-reading it I think I can guess what this is trying to say: my 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.

So it sounds to me like this glitch is entirely benign. 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.

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