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Analysis

America’s Aging Voting Machines Managed to Survive Another Election

The voting machine failures we saw in 2016 serve as a warning of how bad things could get if we don’t replace our aging voting equipment soon.

November 10, 2016

Cross-posted from The Conver­sa­tion.

During this year’s voting, the vast major­ity of states used outdated voting machines peril­ously close to the end of their projec­ted lifespan. Back in April, we warned that 42 states use machines that are at least a decade old. Given that a high percent­age of these machines have projec­ted lifespans of between 10 and 15 years, we argued some­thing needs to be done soon to prevent a real crisis.

We also poin­ted out, though, that the fact that the machines are aging does not mean they will all break down at once. Fortu­nately, on Elec­tion Day, most Amer­ic­ans were able to vote on machines that func­tioned prop­erly, though in a few areas like Detroit, prob­lems were wide­spread.

In addi­tion, elec­tion offi­cials were well-prepared. Keenly aware of the poten­tial prob­lems asso­ci­ated with using anti­quated equip­ment during a high-turnout elec­tion, they were gener­ally able to keep voting going smoothly when prob­lems did arise.

Still, the fail­ures that we did see serve as a warn­ing of how bad things could get if we don’t replace our aging voting equip­ment soon. In a 2010 report, one state’s Depart­ment of Legis­lat­ive Services found that the “nature and frequency of equip­ment fail­ure beyond the manu­fac­turer’s life expect­ancy cannot be predicted.” As machines approach the 15-year mark, we are likely to see progress­ively worse and more frequent prob­lems.

Prob­lems Star­ted Early

Machine prob­lems had already cropped up at the start of this year’s early voting.

Many diffi­culties tended to affect paper­less compu­ter­ized voting machines, or direct record­ing elec­tronic machines (DREs), on which voters make their selec­tion on a touch­screen, with a button or a dial. In Geor­giaNevadaNorth Caro­linaTennessee and Texas, early voters repor­ted calib­ra­tion prob­lems, or “vote flip­ping.” It’s a prob­lem unique to touch­screen machines, where a voter intends to pick one candid­ate, but another shows up as her choice.

In Shelby County, Tennessee, 30 smart cards failed, making it impossible to pull up the correct elec­tronic ballot on voting machines. In Hays County, Texas, voters waited for over an hour because a “faulty cable connec­tion” caused voting machines to fail on the second day of early voting.

Voting machine prob­lems persisted through Elec­tion Day. Reports of malfunc­tion came from several voting loca­tions. Calib­ra­tion errors were repor­ted in the key swing state of Pennsylvania. In one Utah county, due to wide­spread memory card fail­ure, 75 percent of the county’s nearly 400 voting machines failed. In the Detroit area, optical scan machines would not accept ballots.

But at least in some cases, there were ways to work around these sorts of prob­lems. In Durham County, North Caro­lina, computer prob­lems caused delays for poll work­ers check­ing in voters. They switched to backup paper docu­ments, and after litig­a­tion, exten­ded voting hours in eight precincts to make up for the diffi­culties.

A full account­ing of Elec­tion Day’s prob­lems will likely take months to sort out.

We can’t say how many votes were affected by these prob­lems, but they no doubt contrib­uted to long lines. We likely saw at least as many machine prob­lems as we saw in 2012, when approx­im­ately 500,000 to 700,000 people did not vote because of long lines. Of course, there are many poten­tial causes of long lines, includ­ing misal­loc­a­tion of poll work­ers. But other causes are defin­itely fail­ures both of elec­tion offi­cials to provide enough machines and of the machines them­selves in certain polling places.

Prevent­ing another Bush v. Gore

As machines get older, these func­tion­al­ity prob­lems will likely multiply. Context matters. Imagine if these prob­lems had taken place in an extremely close race, decided by just a few hundred or thou­sand votes. The fallout would be disastrous.

We don’t have to imagine what this would look like, because it has already happened. In 2000, prob­lems with faulty voting machinescontrib­uted to an elect­oral melt­down of epic propor­tions.

One key differ­ence between 2000 and today is that we live in a much more polar­ized polit­ical climate, where discus­sion of “rigged” elec­tions has become far too common.

Making matters worse, there are more compu­ter­ized voting machines in use today that do not provide a paper record. In parts of the coun­try using paper­less compu­ter­ized machines – where more than 40 million registered voters reside – voters are asked to trust a system of which they are increas­ingly skep­tical.

Those concerns merge when, on Elec­tion Day, a major party candid­ate takes to cable news and Twit­ter to cast doubt on the outcome.

Confid­ence in elec­tion outcomes and the integ­rity of our elect­oral system is the currency of our demo­cracy. It is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that without that confid­ence, our demo­cracy will cease to func­tion. Anyone who cares about the legit­im­acy of our elec­tions in future years will work to ensure our oldest, least reli­able and veri­fi­able equip­ment is replaced.

(Photo: Think­stock)