Vote Flipping Claims Underline Urgent Need to Fix Voting Machines

Allegations that votes cast in the Georgia governor's race for Democrat Stacey Abrams instead went to Republican Brian Kemp highlight the problem of our aging machines

October 24, 2018

The Georgia NAACP filed a complaint Tuesday claiming that some voting machines recorded votes incorrectly in the state’s closely-fought and high-profile governor’s race. According to the complaint, filed with the office of Secretary of State Brian Kemp, some votes cast for Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams in Bartow and Dodge counties were recorded initially for her Republican opponent, Kemp.

It's not clear whether all of the alleged mistakes were corrected. The Georgia NAACP also says it plans to file complaints in Henry and Cobb counties in response to reports of similar episodes of "vote flipping" -- meaning a vote going to a candidate who the voter didn't select, thanks to a machine malfunction. 

The alleged snafus are just the latest voting problem in Georgia, where thousands of registrations have been put on hold thanks to the state's strict "exact match" policy, and numerous voters have been purged from the rolls. 

These are just the latest example of “vote flipping”

Vote flipping is not new. During the 2016 presidential election, there were reports of vote flipping in a number of states including Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. There were similar reports from Pennsylvania in 2012.

Vote flipping is a technological issue. Currently, Georgia and 19 other states use touchscreen DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) voting machines as the primary polling place equipment in at least some polling places. 

Old touchscreen voting machines are especially vulnerable to vote flipping. Many of these machines rely on outdated technology and can cause problems such as calibration errors. “It can be something as simple as the glue between the screen and the machine degrading,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. Georgia is also one of 13 states that still use paperless DRE systems, and one of five that uses them statewide. Paperless voting machines are particularly unreliable because they do not produce a paper record that either voters or election officials can review.

An alarming number of voting machines across the country are out of date

Vote flipping is a symptom of a broader problem: Many of our voting systems are out of date. In next month’s midterm elections, 41 states will be using computerized voting machines that are at least 10 years old, according to a Brennan Center analysis. That’s dangerously close to or past the end of the expected lifespan for the core components of most of our voting systems. In addition, as of 2018, 43 states and the District of Columbia use polling machine models that are no longer manufactured. The use of these machines is troubling because in the event of a technical malfunction, it can be difficult to find replacement parts and technicians with the ability to repair them. 

Aging voting technology makes our election infrastructure vulnerable to a range of threats including breakdown, malfunction, and hacking. It can also cause negative Election Day experiences for voters, which in turn can undermine their confidence in the system — and in the accuracy of election results. 

We need Congress to act—and for voters to speak out if their vote is flipped

There is growing support for newer voting machines. However, replacing election equipment on a national scale could cost more than $1 billion. Insufficient funding could also fuel a disparity in which poorer counties bear a disproportionate burden of aging infrastructure. In addition, Congress should also mandate post-election audits to confirm the validity of election results. One effective model supported by the Brennan Center is a “risk-limiting audit” in which election officials compare the electronic vote count with a physical paper trail, while protecting the anonymity of voters.

The timeline for congressional action is unclear. But in the event of vote flipping, there are practical measures that voters and election officials can take. If voters see their machines flip votes at their polling location, they should tell poll workers, who in turn should take the compromised system out of commission. Election officials should then issue emergency paper ballots until the machine can be fixed or replaced. There should be at least two to three hours worth of these emergency ballots prepared in advance. "While early voting has started and Election Day is less than two weeks away, it's still not too late to make sure that there are sufficient emergency paper ballots in place," said Norden.

(Image: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)