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Aging Voting Machines Threaten Election Integrity

America’s voting machines are rapidly aging out. Despite the challenges, there is some hope for the future.

April 4, 2016

Cross-posted on The Conver­sa­tion

Imagine you went to your base­ment and dusted off the laptop or mobile phone that you used in 2002. What would happen if you tried to turn it on? We don’t have to guess. Around the coun­try this elec­tion year, people are going into stor­age, pulling out computers that date back to 2002 and asking us to vote on them.

Follow­ing an elec­tion melt­down of epic propor­tions in 2000, the federal govern­ment provided more than US$2 billion to update the nation’s voting infra­struc­ture. More than a decade later, these voting machines are approach­ing the end of their expec­ted lifespans. Experts estim­ate that a reas­on­able lifespan for elec­tronic voting machines (which are computers, running mainly on laptop tech­no­logy developed in the 1990s) is in the 10– to 15-year range.

To determ­ine the state of voting machines across the coun­try, we inter­viewed more than 100 elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors in all 50 states. We also consul­ted scores of public records, spoke with inde­pend­ent tech­no­logy experts and analyzed data collec­ted by the Veri­fied Voting Found­a­tion. Based on this research, we project that in Novem­ber 43 states will use voting machines that are at least a decade old.

That’s a prob­lem for three big reas­ons.

Break­downs lead to lines, and lost votes

First, while no one thinks all the voting machines are going to break down simul­tan­eously, using aging voting equip­ment on Elec­tion Day increases the like­li­hood of break­downs. In fact, one New Mexico elec­tion offi­cial told us that before repla­cing her machines in 2014, as many as one in three needed to be taken out of service.

We saw the consequences in 2012. People waited in line for hours, which preven­ted between 500,000 and 700,000 people from cast­ing a ballot. Voting machine prob­lems this Novem­ber could lead to more long waits and lost votes: in March, we saw thou­sands of voters in Arizona wait in line for hours.

Equally troub­ling is that aging machines can be diffi­cult to main­tain. In more than 40 states, juris­dic­tions use voting machines that are no longer manu­fac­tured. As these machines get older, parts become scarcer and elec­tion offi­cials are increas­ingly forced to hoard rare parts needed to keep their equip­ment running. Neal Kelley, regis­trar in Orange County, Cali­for­nia – the sixth-largest juris­dic­tion in the coun­try – told us that he relies on a “back stock” of spare parts to keep his machines running. At some point, the inab­il­ity to find replace­ment parts will mean more voters shar­ing fewer work­ing machines.

Finally, there are secur­ity risks. Many older voting systems rely on outdated oper­at­ing systems, like Windows XP and 2000, which are no longer suppor­ted. Several elec­tion offi­cials told us that they stock­pile refur­bished laptops that can run obsol­ete versions of Windows. Sherry Poland, director of elec­tions in Hamilton County, Ohio, told us that she “stock­piled older PCs that will run Windows XP.” Other experts, like Merle King in Geor­gia, told us that his state hired a contractor to build custom hard­ware that will work with Windows 2000. Unsup­por­ted soft­ware is riskier from a secur­ity perspect­ive, since it does not receive regu­lar secur­ity updates and is vulner­able to new meth­ods of attack.

An enorm­ous price tag

These anec­dotes trans­late into real prob­lems at polling places. The Virginia Depart­ment of Elec­tions conduc­ted a review after machines crashed during the 2014 elec­tion. Invest­ig­at­ors easily hacked into several WinVote machines, which used decade-old Wi-Fi encryp­tion stand­ards, expos­ing seri­ous secur­ity vulner­ab­il­it­ies. As a result of these find­ings, the Elec­tions Board decer­ti­fied the machine, forcing 30 juris­dic­tions to replace their equip­ment, cost­ing taxpay­ers millions.

While most busi­ness offices upgrade their systems and update computers every few years, crit­ical comput­ing infra­struc­ture for elec­tions is treated differ­ently. We do not expect our laptops or our desktops to last a decade – and this is the kind of tech­no­logy that voting machines use. The easy answer is to replace the machines, but in much of the coun­try, that is not happen­ing.

Many elec­tion offi­cials who believe they need new machines do not have suffi­cient fund­ing. We iden­ti­fied juris­dic­tions in 31 states that will need new machines in the next few years. Elec­tion offi­cials in 22 of those states told us they do not know how they will pay for them.

Accord­ing to our estim­ates, the cost of new machines could exceed $1 billion. It is unlikely that the federal govern­ment will provide another infu­sion of billions of dollars to pay for new voting equip­ment. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars flow­ing abroad to strengthen demo­cratic insti­tu­tions in other coun­tries, little to noth­ing is provided for elec­tions at home.

Making systems more nimble for the future

State and local poli­cy­makers have not had to pay for voting machines in the past because of federal fund­ing for updated voting equip­ment in the wake of the 2000 elec­tion debacle. Faced with a new demand amid many compet­ing budget prior­it­ies, they have been slow to respond to this import­ant need.

While some states and counties will provide fund­ing for new machines, others will not. Dispar­it­ies in fund­ing between and within states has the poten­tial to create a two-tiered elec­tion system, where poorer (and often rural) counties are forced to use aging voting equip­ment far longer than they should, while wealth­ier juris­dic­tions can afford to replace their hard­ware.

In late 2014, Virginia Governor Terry McAul­iffe proposed that the state invest $28 million in new voting equip­ment. Ulti­mately, Virginia legis­lat­ors stripped the fund­ing for voting equip­ment from the budget and the cost for new machines was left to local­it­ies. Virgini­a’s commis­sioner of elec­tions, Edgardo Cortes, told us that that only some Virginia elec­tion juris­dic­tions can afford new machines: “Loudon and Fair­fax counties – two of the largest and wealth­i­est counties in the state – have bought new equip­ment. Smal­ler, poorer and more rural counties around the state are going to have a tough time.”

Despite the chal­lenges posed by the wide­spread aging out of voting machines, there is hope for the future.

Our report high­lights advances in tech­no­logy that could make voting systems more afford­able and flex­ible over time. In places like Los Angeles and Travis County, Texas (where Austin is located), elec­tion offi­cials are look­ing at using open source soft­ware and commer­cial off-the-shelf hard­ware to make systems that are more agile – making it possible to replace parts here and there, instead of repla­cing an entire voting system at the first signs of degrad­a­tion.

While such advances will help us in future years, they will not resolve today’s crisis. There is no escap­ing the imme­di­ate need to plan and set aside suffi­cient funds to buy new machines.

(Photo: Wiki­pe­dia)