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Aging Voting Machines Are a Threat to Democracy

It should not be difficult to rally our elected leaders to remedy an eminently fixable problem threatening our democracy: the looming crisis resulting from our nation’s outdated voting machines.

September 28, 2015

Cross-posted on The Huff­ing­ton Post

There are some polit­ical prob­lems that defy easy solu­tion­s—the rise of extreme partis­an­ship, or our broken campaign finance system, for instance. But it should not be diffi­cult to rally our elec­ted lead­ers to remedy an emin­ently fixable prob­lem threat­en­ing our demo­cracy: the loom­ing crisis result­ing from our nation’s outdated voting machines.

In the vast major­ity of states, aging voting machines are approach­ing the end of their useful lives. To continue to use this equip­ment past its projec­ted lifespan could be disastrous. After years of wear-and-tear, machine parts like mother­boards, memory cards, and touch screens begin to fail. When this happens on Elec­tion Day, machines must be taken out of service. Voters can be forced to wait in line—­some­times for hours—while repairs are made or machines substi­tuted.

This can only shake confid­ence in the elect­oral process, and in worst case scen­arios can impact elec­tion results. In the 2012 elec­tion, accord­ing a study by polit­ical scient­ists from Harvard and MIT, between 500,000 and 700,000 votes were lost nation­ally because of long lines. Absent action to replace or upgrade machines, this prob­lem will only grow worse.

A little history is in order. After the 2000 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion debacle, involving “hanging chads” on paper ballots in Flor­ida, Congress passed a law alloc­at­ing more than $2 billion to the states to replace obsol­ete voting equip­ment. By 2006, the vast major­ity of elec­tion juris­dic­tions had deployed new machines.

Voting system experts agree that most machines purchased since 2000 have a projec­ted lifespan of between 10 and 15 years. Today, 43 states are using systems that will be at least 10 years old in 2016; 14 are using machines that will be at least 15 years old. No one expects a laptop computer to last for 10 years. It is wrong to expect these elec­tronic voting machines, many of which use laptop tech­no­logy from the 1990s, to last much longer.

For a high-profile example of what can go wrong with anti­quated machines consider Virgini­a’s 2014 elec­tion. Follow­ing reports of machines crash­ing or regis­ter­ing votes incor­rectly, the state Board of Elec­tions commis­sioned an expert review to look at 27 malfunc­tion­ing touch screen machines. In 26 of them, they found the glue hold­ing the touch screens in place had degraded, knock­ing them out of align­ment so votes were not recor­ded prop­erly. That prob­lem may not be limited to Virginia. The same model of this anti­quated machine is still used in 20 states.

Secur­ity is another prob­lem with older machines. In a related invest­ig­a­tion, look­ing at a differ­ent machine, Virginia invest­ig­at­ors found wire­less cards that could allow “an external party to access the [machine] and modify the data without notice from a nearby loca­tion.”

In the years since those machines were purchased, much has been learned about how to design voting systems that are more user friendly and access­ible to all. We have developed tech­niques that can audit the count of paper ballots, to ensure that the soft­ware on new machines is correctly tally­ing votes.

As it is, main­tain­ing the outdated machines used today is often a struggle. As voting systems age, the parts neces­sary to support them go out of produc­tion. Some elec­tion offi­cials have to resort to find­ing parts on eBay.

It is too late for most juris­dic­tions to acquire new voting machines in time for the 2016 elec­tion. But that does not mean there is time to waste. To ensure new machines are in place before 2018 or even 2020, plan­ning and budget­ing must begin imme­di­ately.

Even in the absence of new machines, there are import­ant steps that states and counties can take in the next several months to reduce fail­ures or minim­ize their impact on voting next Novem­ber. Offi­cials should test every voting machine before Elec­tion Day to catch prob­lems ahead of time. Train­ing poll work­ers on how to deal with machine prob­lems is also crit­ical. Poll work­ers who know what to do in case of machine prob­lems can make the differ­ence between a major Elec­tion Day fiasco and a brief delay.

Of course, the fragile state of voting machines is no secret to those elec­tion offi­cials who need to replace them. What too many lack is the money to do so.

Congress has a role to play. As it did 13 years ago, Wash­ing­ton should provide an infu­sion of money to help purchase new machines. But today, few in Congress of either party are talk­ing about this prob­lem. Real­ist­ic­ally, given how soon action needs to be taken, states are going to have to provide the major­ity of funds. At a moment of intense budget pres­sures, repla­cing all of the aging machines will not be cheap—the total cost could easily reach $1 billion nation­wide. But even in tough budget times, this is an essen­tial invest­ment. The mech­an­ics of demo­cracy are too import­ant to rely on outdated systems that are increas­ingly prone to fail­ure.

(Photo: Wiki­pe­dia)