Replace Outdated Voting Machines

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Agenda outlines a series of concrete proposals that the next President and Congress should embrace to improve democracy in America.

February 4, 2016

America’s voting machines are rapidly aging out. Most machines in use today were purchased between 2000 and 2005 and have a projected lifespan of 10 to 15 years. These antiquated systems contribute to long lines and are prone to errors like lost votes, “flipped” votes going to the wrong candidate, and incorrect tallies. Maintaining these old machines is both difficult and expensive, since replacement parts are no longer manufactured. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration concluded there is an “impending crisis… from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago.”[1]

Not surprisingly, election officials are well aware of the problem. A Brennan Center survey found jurisdictions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years. But officials in 22 of these states — 71 percent — said they did not know where they would find the money to pay for them. [2]

In an era of strained state and local budgets, spending money on voting machines hardly seems like an immediate priority. Yet, we have already seen the consequences. For instance, one expert warned in 1988 that punch card voting systems, like those used in some parts of Florida in 2000, needed to be upgraded or replaced. Twelve years later the presidency hung in the balance as the nation debated hanging chads, voter error, and lost votes.[3]

Proposal

The federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is the agency best equipped to aid states in dealing with aging voting equipment. It can act as a clearinghouse, providing critical information on machine problems and solutions as well as best practices for maintenance. Yet the EAC was hobbled for four years, until late 2014, because it did not have a quorum of commissioners. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are pushing for the EAC to be shut down altogether.[4]

Instead of trying to kill the EAC, Congress should bolster it. As of this writing, one of the four commissioner slots is vacant and should be filled. Equally important, Congress should enhance EAC’s grant programs that can spur improvements in technology and administration.

Why This Can Be Achieved

While antiquated machines are a concern for the 2016 election, new innovations show the next generation of voting machines can be more reliable, more usable, and less expensive. Many officials want to use commercial-off-the-shelf hardware, such as printers and tablets, and adapt them for voting. This is far less expensive than today’s voting machines and can be easily and cheaply replaced. With proper funding, the same kind of cheap, reliable computer power that Americans use every day can at last be introduced to voting machines.

In the last year, the EAC has done an admirable job of moving forward on stalled projects, approving long-pending voting machine guidelines and beginning the process to create new ones. Of a $3.8 trillion federal budget, the cost of the EAC is microscopic, a mere $10 million. That’s less than five cents per registered voter.[5]

With democracy at stake, Congress should provide robust support to the EAC so it can supply the necessary resources for states and localities to have voting systems that are accurate, efficient, and affordable. The result will be an improved experience for all voters.

Resources

Next: End Long Lines


[1] The Presidential Comm’n on Election Admin., The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration 62 (2014), available at https://www.supportthevoter.gov/files/2014/01/Amer-Voting-Exper-final-draft-01-09-14-508.pdf.

[2] Lawrence Norden, Christopher Famighetti, America’s Voting Machines at Risk (2015), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/americas-voting-machines-risk.

[3] The warnings of the Commission and the relative lack of attention they have received represent an eerie repetition  of the silence that greeted a 1988 National Bureau of Standards report written by Roy Saltman, who argued that punch card voting systems,  like the kind used in Ft Lauderdale, Florida needed to be upgraded or replaced, or serious consequences would follow. See Roy G. Saltman, Nat’l Bureau of Standards, Accuracy, Integrity and Security in Computerized Vote-Tallying (1988), available at http://www.itl.nist.gov/lab/specpubs/500-158.htm. In addition, election officials in Massachusetts and New Hampshire banned the use of punch card voting machines before 2000. Lucy Morgan, Punch Cards Fraught with Errors, St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 14, 2000, available at http://www.sptimes.com/News/111400/Election2000/Punch_cards_fraught_w.sh... Richard Lacayo, Is This Any Way to Vote?, TIME, Nov. 27, 2000, available at http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2047399,00.html; John Minz, Most States Don’t Count Dimples, Wash. Post, Nov. 24, 2000, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2000/11/24/most-states-do....

[4] See Election Assistance Termination Act, H.R. 195, 114th Cong. (2015).