How to Protect Against Foreign Interference in Elections? Upgrade Voting Technology

Reports of Russian “interference” in the 2016 election have left many asking how secure and reliable our voting systems are. Despite these facts, state legislatures and Congress are not providing the funds to upgrade and replace them.

March 27, 2017

Reports of Russian “interference” in the 2016 election have left many asking how secure and reliable our voting systems are.  While it is important to point out there is no evidence the Russians, or anyone else, interfered with the systems that count our votes in 2016, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about voting system security going forward. Far too many voting machines in the United States are aging and decrepit. Despite these facts, state legislatures and Congress are not providing the funds to upgrade and replace them.

Last week, a legislative panel in Arkansas rejected $18.5 million in funding for new machines. Lawmakers in Arkansas have debated the need for new voting equipment for two years. In 2015, the state approved $30 million in funding for voting equipment, but the funds never materialized. The secretary of state’s office implemented a scaled-back plan and provided funding for new machines in just 10 of Arkansas’ 75 counties.

Arkansas is not alone. Many other states and counties are struggling to find funds for new machines. In 2015, we took a comprehensive look at the state of voting technology in the United States and found a pervasive lack of funding for voting machines.

Officials in 32 states have told us that they would need new machines in the next four years, but officials in 21 of those states told us they did not have the necessary funds. In 2016, we dug a bit deeper and surveyed 274 election officials in 28 states. We found that, while more than half of the officials said they needed to purchase new machines by 2020, 80 percent did not have all the necessary funds.

The good news is that in some states, decision makers recognize the dire need for new voting equipment. In Michigan, following widely publicized machine problems in Detroit, the state initiated a plan to replace its voting machines. In January, state officials in Michigan announced $40 million in state funding for new equipment. But it should not take an Election Day meltdown to secure funds for new machines. Legislators in other states, like Arkansas or North Dakota, have refused to provide funds for election infrastructure.  

If states do not provide funding, the responsibility is passed on to local governments. In some cases, counties and cities can raise the funds needed to purchase new machines. Since last year’s election, localities in Colorado, Florida, Texas,  Wisconsin, and Virginia did so. In other cases, cash-strapped local governments will continue to use aging equipment far longer than they should.

If only some states make funding for voting equipment a priority, there will be a division between those states that can find the money for machines and those that cannot. Furthermore, within states, there will be a similar rift. Such disparities could lead to a two-tiered voting system, where some voters are relegated to use antiquated, error-prone voting equipment.

The numbers bear this out. As part of our ongoing voting research, we found that wealthier counties in Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio, and Virginia were more likely to have near-term plans to purchase, or already have, new machines.

Lawmakers have attempted to bridge that divide. The VOTE Act, introduced last year by Rep. Hank Johnson (D- Ga.), would allocate more than $125 million in grants for new voting equipment to the states. His bill is a start, but with the next federal election just 18 months away, there is not much time to waste. Congress and state legislatures should prioritize shoring up election infrastructure, and begin the process of funding new voting equipment today.

(Image: Flickr.com/ Justgrimes)