Voting's ‘impending crisis’

by @mhkeller September 15, 2014 10:30AM ET

With US voting machines aging, states have few funds to replace them, and vendors are putting little new on the market

Election 2014
Voting in 1952

A recent presidential commission report on election administration characterizes the state of U.S. voting machines as an “impending crisis.” According to the report, created in response to a presidential order, existing voting machines are reaching the end of their operational life spans, jurisdictions often lack the funds to replace them, and those with funds find market offerings limited because several constraints have made manufacturing new machines difficult.

On Election Day, these problems could translate into hours-long waits, lost votes and errors in election results. In the long term, such problems breed a lack of trust in the democratic process, reducing the public's faith in government, experts say.

According to Barbara Simons, a member of the board of advisers to the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the problem can't be avoided any longer. "People died for the right to vote as recently as the civil rights movement," she said. "The American Revolution was all about being able to control our own democracy, and that means voting … We know that a lot of machines were breaking in the 2012 election. It's not that it's an impending crisis. This crisis is already here."

Also, outdated voting machines can present security risks both in hardware deficiencies (some machines use generic keys to protect sensitive panels) and in software flaws that are difficult if not impossible to detect when compromised, according to security audits. Assessing the security of many of these systems is difficult, however, since companies insist proprietary software and hardware may not be disclosed to third parties. Government audits are often not fully public.

How did we get here?

The current problem is rooted in the short-term fixes that were implemented to solve the last major voting crisis, in 2000, when unreliable punchcard machines led to ambiguous ballots in Florida, putting the presidential election into question. After further issues in the 2002 midterm elections, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) that fall. HAVA gave states millions of dollars to replace punchcard machines and created the EAC, charged with establishing standards for voting systems.

HAVA did not require states to wait for the new standards before buying machines, however, leading many jurisdictions to replace punchcard systems — whose faults were largely known — with electronic, paperless machines — whose faults were unknown and whose reliability was untested.

When the EAC put out voluntary guidelines in 2005, it gave manufacturers and states only two years to make their equipment compliant. Voting experts say it takes at least four years to adequately develop, test and deploy new voting equipment.

Building a better voting machine

Due to the lack of commissioners at the Election Assistance Comission, federal standards are a long way out. But even with those standards in place, it can take at least four years to bring a machine to market, according to experts. Here’s a breakdown of the steps involved.

Many of the machines in use today were purchased with HAVA funds, and inspectors and regulators have discovered dozens of security flaws in different types of machines. In 2008 a Princeton University group found that it took only seven minutes "using simple tools" to hack into an AVC Advantage, currently used in over 90 counties, and plant malware to steal votes from one party and give them to another.

A comprehensive California review in 2007 uncovered serious weaknesses in the software architecture of many machines, including the Diebold AccuVote TSX, currently used in over 400 counties. The state decertified touch-screen machines on the basis of the report's findings.

San Diego County was one jurisdiction that felt the effects of that decision. Roughly 10,000 AccuVote TSX touchscreen machines, purchased for $25 million dollars, are sitting shrinkwrapped in a warehouse. The county has since switched to optical scan ballots and has "made it work" with the limited supply, said Michael Vu, the clerk in charge of elections for the county. A maximum of one decertified machine per precinct (roughly 1,400) may be used in elections for use by voters who have disabilities or otherwise can't vote using a paper ballot.

A stalled industry

Development of new machines has been stalled because the EAC has been without sitting commissioners since 2011. Voting experts say this is due to a combination of partisanship over the EAC's role and Senate Republicans' obstruction of presidential nominees.

"At this point in time, until something viable comes on the market, we're sitting in a holding pattern," Vu said.

"The existing vendors are trying to keep their last generation of equipment functional while they are waiting to see what the political and regulatory requirements will be," said Dean Logan, who is in charge of elections for Los Angeles County. "And in the meantime, all that federal money has dried up — and we had an economic crisis, so you're competing for public funds with safety, environmental concerns, all those things. There's not this pot of money there for voting equipment."

Election officials and experts say this problem goes beyond flaws in any one machine.

"If you really get down to it, the issue with the punchcards in 2000 were a symptom of greater problem, but the focus was on the punchcards, and we nationally never fully addressed the other elements of what took place in that election," Logan said. "The systems that are out there, from my perspective, were never designed with voter experience in mind, nor were they designed for the level of political scrutiny and emphasis on voting outcomes."

Because of increased political partisanship, election results have become closer over the last 10 to 15 years, Logan said. "As a result, that's exposed the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the historical model of voting system design and general election administration. And I think those are good things," he said. The challenge is building voting systems that use modern technology that voters are used to and developing processes that can withstand intense scrutiny in order to win the public's trust, he said.

Finding new solutions

With a stalled federal process, some jurisdictions have started taking matters into their own hands. Los Angeles County and Travis County in Texas are investing in designing their own systems. STAR-Vote, Travis County's three-year-old project aims to build a system that costs less than the usual $3,000 per machine and has built-in security and audit procedures superior to those of most other systems on the market.

"Providing voting systems to counties has just turned out to be too expensive and too proprietary to sustain," said Dana DeBeauvoir, Travis County's election clerk. "Each vendor has a business to run. We've seen upgrades delayed or limited because companies need to control their resources."

STAR-Vote is going out for bid in the next few months, and the county hopes to begin testing in low-stakes elections around 2017.

LA County's project, the Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP), which plans to start testing on a similar timeline in 2017, is based around extensive field tests of voting habits and is not focusing on one particular technology to solve the voting problem.

"I think we're seeing a few things emerge that we're trying to respond to," Logan said. An expectation exists today — and it will continue to increase — of the ability to have options in voting. By options I mean that some voters prefer in person to vote, some prefer to vote remotely. They want the ability to engage in the process that makes sense for them. I think that's going to continue to be an issue that we have to address."

One option that other groups have floated is Internet voting.

Although disability and armed service groups are pushing for Internet voting as way to increase turnout and bypass aging machines, security experts agree that such a system would introduce more flaws than solutions. Although people can bank relatively safely online, fraud and theft still occur. Online banking and electronic transactions accounted for nine percent of fraud and losses in 2012, totaling $153 million. Also, not all fraud is detected and certainly not immediately. Whereas money can be replaced months after the fact, elections and votes aren't as simple, experts say.

"The fact is that Internet voting is fundamentally insecure," Simons said.

How do you vote?

Use the tool below, powered by a database collected by Verified Voting to find out which voting machines are used in your area and to contact your local election official. It’s important to point out that even if you're voting on a machine with a history of problems, strong procedures on election day can help mitigate the risk. Some counties might have updated their voting equipment from what you see below. To double check, contact your local election official with the number listed. For more detailed information, such as machines for voters with disabilities or to search by machine, use The Verifier, a tool updated and maintained by Verified Voting. To begin, enter your county name and state into the field below.

County equipment types (top to bottom, more to less auditable)
  • Paper ballots or punch cards
  • Mixed paper ballot and direct recording devices
  • Direct recording devices with a paper trail
  • Direct recording devices with no paper trail

    Notes: Machines shown are those used in polling places. Other machines may be used for absentee voters or those with disabilities. For all vote by mail jurisdictions, absentee tabulation equipment is shown.

    Source: Machine and county information from Verified Voting.