The Ross Retort

 

March 5, 2004

Hello Chips, Goodbye Chads

 

 

Four-year-old Jackie was not the youngest kid schlepped to the polls by mom last Tuesday. But, he was one of the first to experience voting on a Game Boy.

 

Raised in the cyber age, the freckled red head was unimpressed. He had already cast his straw vote in October for der Gouverneur Terminator. That was way cooler than touch screen voting.

 

Two hours earlier, dozens of voters raised in the ballot box age were turned away at his parent’s polling place because workers could not get beyond the Windows CE screen by the 7:00AM opening time.

The explanation and the cure was sitting on someone’s desk in the County Registrar’s office—a one page description of possible error messages and the processes to fix them.

 

But when hapless poll workers tried to call troubleshooters in the registrar’s office using a half dozen alternative phone numbers, they might as well have been calling Bangalore, India.

 

For almost an hour, they could only access an assembly of answering machines until finally a “troubleshooter” from the registrar’s office happened by and fixed the problem.

 

This was a crash and burn moment shared by polling places all over the county. Countless working people were denied their voting rights because they could not return to the polls before they closed at 8:00PM. The ACLU is assessing the impacts.

 

It could not have been a worse opening day for County Registrar Sally McPherson and the Secretary of State who fully believed that the new system was ready for prime time--the March 2 super sweeps primary.

 

Electronic voting machines have been under fire from a variety of groups worried that the new technology is vulnerable to mischief, mayhem and mistakes. Had it not been for the early morning glitch, few of us would have paid much attention to these Orwellian predictions.

 

Like everyone I talked with at the polls, I thought the voting machine experience was neat, especially the bright and easily read interface, which as it turns out, I could see over the shoulder of voters from the entrance to every polling place I visited.

 

A well placed digital camera with a decent telephoto lens could give a whole new meaning to exit polls. Without trying, I saw the X appear under one gentleman’s index finger next to the name of someone for whom I might have used a different finger.

 

Some of the more conspiratorial type folks are concerned that a single company, Diebold Election Systems who build and administer the machines, possesses too much power over our most important civic activity. They argue that a group of insider ideologues could jury-rig the code.

 

One popular scenario described on the Internet involves a Trojan Horse type virus that could lie dormant inside the logic string, popping up after the required security tests are performed.

 

Since the October 7 recall election when uncertified software was installed by Diebold on machines in several counties, the California Secretary of State has ordered an end to paperless voting so that in the next election cycle voters will be able to verify their choices on a paper copy, vastly improving auditing capabilities.

 

But, simple observation at several polling places in Carmel Valley, Carlsbad and Del Mar, tells me that security problems are more the about the happenstances of everyday life than the esoteric world of computer codes.

 

Today’s poll workers, who can count themselves among my heroes for their ardent dedication to democratic processes and their sincere determination to do things right, are ill-prepared for the problems the new technology presents in their work space.

 

 

For example, in one polling place, twotoddlers made a beeline under the voting booths for a tantalizing yellow cord that ran from the voting machines into an exposed and accessible wall socket.

 

An observant poll worker made a quick dive across the registration table, preventing a disconnect that could have been heard around the world.

 

I listened to one worker describe the desperate first moments of Tuesday morning when she and her colleagues realized that they could not get the machines to operate.

 

A well-meaning voter, describing himself as a computer expert, tried in vain to bang the system into go. Thankfully, he was not a cyber terrorist.

 

The early morning breakdown, as it turns out, could have been avoided if a simple one page list of possible error messages had been distributed to poll workers.

 

Number five on that list describes says “if the Windows screen appears, double tap ‘My Computers’; double tap ‘file:Storage Card File Folder’ double tap...” You get the picture. The list was apparently available at training sessions, but not to poll workers that morning.

 

And, with all the hoopla over these state of the art machines, reporting at San Diego’s Election Central droned on into the wee hours just as they have for the past fifty years, dribble by dribble.

 

It was like hamsters on treadmills were inside the machines instead of an Intel chip. For reasons only known to the Registrar, the results from the First District city council election lagged by hours behind other races.

Sometime after midnight First Disctrict Councilman Scott Peters discovered that in spite of a panopoly of special interest endorsements, he faces a run-off experience that others on the City Council avoided by winning out right.

 

Touch screen voting is here to stay in spite of doomsday predictions about the end of Democracy.. Voters love it. And the next generation expects technological solutions.

 

But it was clear on Tuesday that the capacity for humans to inject chaos into any system,