Joseph Kaczmarek / AP

Old, faulty voting machines put US democracy at risk, report warns

Study raises alarms about potential for another Election Day disaster, with poorer counties on the front line

Fifteen years after voting problems in Florida left the United States without a clear winner in its presidential election for five traumatizing weeks, a disturbing proportion of voting machines in use across the nation are old and prone to malfunction, according to the findings of a major new study issued Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.

From counties still using analog modems, dot-matrix printers and software that works only with Windows 2000 to touchscreen machines with surfaces so degraded that votes can be recorded for the wrong candidates, the the 68-page report raises alarms about the condition of election equipment and the potential for Election Day 2000-style failures.

Forty-three states have counties using machines that will be at least 10 years old by Election Day 2016, and counties in 14 states will be using machines that will be more than 15 years old, co-authors Lawrence Norden and Christopher Famighetti found. They put their national estimate for replacement equipment at more than $1 billion, but they believe that using off-the-shelf technology like tablet computers could considerably reduce immediate and long-term expenses.

“Someone must come up with the money,” the authors urge in the report, “America’s Voting Machines at Risk.” “While most experts we spoke to agree there is little chance Congress will provide hundreds of millions (or potentially billions) of dollars for new machines, targeted investments by the federal government and state governments could have enormous benefits.”

The chief benefit, of course, would be preventing such meltdowns as when punch-card balloting in Florida and poor ballot design threw the too-close-to-call 2000 presidential election into dispute. More recently, the lack of enough operable voting machines was partly to blame for incredibly long lines at polls on Election Day in 2012.

“I hope reports like this lead to the recognition that we as a nation are going to have to invest in this, because if we leave it to each county, the ones who can afford to will have the best equipment and the ones who can’t, we just shrug our shoulders and say good luck,” said Merle King, the executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “Then we’re just rolling the dice with every election.”

Part of the problem, the study’s authors and other experts say, is that elections are run and funded primarily by counties. After the 2000 debacle, Congress attached $4 billion to the Help America Vote Act, which distributed grants across the nation and kicked off a spree of spending on new equipment and expensive long-term maintenance contracts.

‘You shouldn’t wait for the wheels to fall off the fire truck before you replace them. There comes a point when it becomes much more risky and costly to run elections with old equipment than purchasing new equipment.’

Edgardo Cortes

elections commissioner, Virginia

Many of those machines are now failing or becoming out of date. The report documents registrars prowling eBay to buy old laptops that can run Windows 2000 software or parts for dot-matrix printers, among other antiquated equipment.

Yet little public money has become available for updates. State and local governments have been cash strapped for years, largely thanks to the Great Recession. In December 2014, for instance, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and Rep. Scott Rigell, a Republican, jointly urged the state legislature to spend $28 million to replace aging voting machines. The Virginia House leadership dropped that item from the budget, saying it’s a matter for counties to pay for.

“You shouldn't wait for the wheels to fall off the fire truck before you replace them,” groused Virginia Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortes. “There comes a point when it becomes much more risky and costly to run elections with old equipment than purchasing new equipment.”

The result is that wealthier or more populous counties tend to have more money to spend on machines than poorer, more rural ones, the study says. In rural Polk County, Florida, Election Supervisor Lori Edwards is one of those scavenging the Internet and elsewhere to keep her systems working. Just last week her staffers went to another Florida county that recently bought new equipment to buy its old machines, the same kind Polk County still uses.

“In our jurisdiction, we’re proactive that way,” Edwards said. “Our equipment is no longer manufactured, and the manufacturer has been threatening to stop maintaining them. So I tagged a staffer to do the maintenance, and I buy up old equipment to stockpile for when our machines break.”

The report’s authors hope they can jump-start the conversation about modernizing technology and creating incentives for localities to innovate. They described efforts in Los Angeles County and Travis County, Texas, to design their own software and systems that can break the stranglehold on election equipment enjoyed by voting-machine vendors.

Yet they, like many of the registrars they spoke with, fear that it could take another Election Day disaster like 2000 to force lawmakers to take the problem seriously.

“What surprised me most was how open election officials were to talking with us, because they’re usually pretty reluctant to say anything that might cast doubt on the integrity of the election process,” Norden said. “That says something about the degree of the problem. It’s against their general nature to talk so openly about concerns they have about their equipment.”

Barbara Simons, who chairs the board of the election integrity advocacy group Verified Voting, said the report carries a “an important message — we’re not running our elections the way we should be.”

“We have aging systems, some of which were bad systems to begin with,” said Simons, a co-author of “Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?” “Are we really going to continue to run our elections in such a haphazard way? We’re really putting our democracy at risk by relying on machines that are not reliable or in some cases insecure.”

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