Touchscreen Voting in the Coronavirus Era

Electronic viruses may not be the only ailments that residents fear when using L.A. County’s new touchscreen systems to vote in the upcoming March 2020 primary. Those voting in person very much risk transmitting or receiving several communicable diseases, including the new coronavirus. 

Titled Voting System for All People (VSAP), the new touchscreen computerized ballot-marking devices will allow L.A. County voters to cast their vote at any center in the county, with some centers opening as early as Feb. 22. However, the touch screens also carry the risk of harboring live bacteria if not properly sanitized. 

The L.A. County Registrar did not respond to multiple attempts by the Courier to ascertain just how the touchscreen devices inside the polling places would be cleaned in between users. Beverly Hills City Clerk Huma Ahmed told the Courier that she had also inquired about how the county planned to take care of cleaning the kiosks, but had yet to hear back. 

Dr. Irving Posalski, an infectious disease specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, underscored the importance of good hygiene when voting in person in order to minimize the risk of getting sick, particularly during the current flu season. And while in-person exchanges are the most risky when it comes to contracting a virus, if at all possible, Dr. Posalski said it would behoove touchscreen voters to clean the surfaces before using them, just as one should do to the tray tables inside airplanes. 

“If you’re going to go into a voting booth and you’re going to touch screens … I’d make a mental note that I’m not going to touch my face until I wash my hands or use a hand sanitizer,” he told the Courier. “I’m not that worried about the coronavirus. I’m more worried about the influenza virus, especially in flu season.” 

Posalski characterized this year’s flu season as “a little worse” than average. 

While understanding continues to grow about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a “public health emergency” for the new coronavirus, despite the fact that the current risk to the American public remains low. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed a total of 15 cases in the U.S., as of press time, including one in California. Worldwide, over 60,000 people have been infected with the disease and more than 1,300 people have died from it in China. 

But outside of this new outbreak, currently rare in the U.S., the possibility to contract a virus while voting in person is very real. Posalski said that fomites, surfaces that carry germs, such as a doorknob or a touchscreen, can potentially serve as a way to transmit diseases. Cleaning the surface with a disinfectant or sanitizer, however, will kill the germs. 

“The way you catch a cold or coronavirus is that someone sneezes and the droplets get carried through the air and you inhale it,” he described. “The other way is they cough, and they have their hands up to their mouth, and they have a little bit of moisture particles on their hands, and you shake hands.” 

A 2018 study conducted by Metro, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, based on research done by Dr. Paul Matewele, a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, found harmful bacteria, including fecal matter, on 11 newly installed McDonald’s touchscreen kiosks in London and Birmingham – the totality of all touchscreen machines swabbed in the study. 

“Seeing Staphylococcus on these machines is worrying because it is so contagious,” Dr. Matewele is quoted as saying in the Metro article. 

For those voting in-person in the nation’s most populous county in the March 3 election, all polling stations offer voters the option of using hand-marked paper ballots. L.A. County voters also have until Feb. 25 to request a vote-by-mail ballot. ( apply-to-vote-by-mail) 

Voters then have three options on how to return their ballot: by mail (no postage is necessary); in person at any Vote by Mail drop box location; or at any Vote Center in L.A. County. 


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