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Analysis

How to Protect Against Foreign Interference in Elections? Upgrade Voting Technology

Reports of Russian “interference” in the 2016 election have left many asking how secure and reliable our voting systems are. Despite these facts, state legislatures and Congress are not providing the funds to upgrade and replace them.

  • Christopher Famighetti
March 27, 2017

Reports of Russian “inter­fer­ence” in the 2016 elec­tion have left many asking how secure and reli­able our voting systems are.  While it is import­ant to point out there is no evid­ence the Russi­ans, or anyone else, interfered with the systems that count our votes in 2016, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about voting system secur­ity going forward. Far too many voting machines in the United States are aging and decrepit. Despite these facts, state legis­latures and Congress are not provid­ing the funds to upgrade and replace them.

Last week, a legis­lat­ive panel in Arkan­sas rejec­ted $18.5 million in fund­ing for new machines. Lawmakers in Arkan­sas have debated the need for new voting equip­ment for two years. In 2015, the state approved $30 million in fund­ing for voting equip­ment, but the funds never mater­i­al­ized. The secret­ary of state’s office imple­men­ted a scaled-back plan and provided fund­ing for new machines in just 10 of Arkansas’ 75 counties.

Arkan­sas is not alone. Many other states and counties are strug­gling to find funds for new machines. In 2015, we took a compre­hens­ive look at the state of voting tech­no­logy in the United States and found a pervas­ive lack of fund­ing for voting machines.

Offi­cials in 32 states have told us that they would need new machines in the next four years, but offi­cials in 21 of those states told us they did not have the neces­sary funds. In 2016, we dug a bit deeper and surveyed 274 elec­tion offi­cials in 28 states. We found that, while more than half of the offi­cials said they needed to purchase new machines by 2020, 80 percent did not have all the neces­sary funds.

The good news is that in some states, decision makers recog­nize the dire need for new voting equip­ment. In Michigan, follow­ing widely publi­cized machine prob­lems in Detroit, the state initi­ated a plan to replace its voting machines. In Janu­ary, state offi­cials in Michigan announced $40 million in state fund­ing for new equip­ment. But it should not take an Elec­tion Day melt­down to secure funds for new machines. Legis­lat­ors in other states, like Arkan­sas or North Dakota, have refused to provide funds for elec­tion infra­struc­ture.  

If states do not provide fund­ing, the respons­ib­il­ity is passed on to local govern­ments. In some cases, counties and cities can raise the funds needed to purchase new machines. Since last year’s elec­tion, local­it­ies in Color­ado, Flor­ida, Texas,  Wiscon­sin, and Virginia did so. In other cases, cash-strapped local govern­ments will continue to use aging equip­ment far longer than they should.

If only some states make fund­ing for voting equip­ment a prior­ity, there will be a divi­sion between those states that can find the money for machines and those that cannot. Further­more, within states, there will be a similar rift. Such dispar­it­ies could lead to a two-tiered voting system, where some voters are releg­ated to use anti­quated, error-prone voting equip­ment.

The numbers bear this out. As part of our ongo­ing voting research, we found that wealth­ier counties in Color­ado, Minnesota, Ohio, and Virginia were more likely to have near-term plans to purchase, or already have, new machines.

Lawmakers have attemp­ted to bridge that divide. The VOTE Act, intro­duced last year by Rep. Hank John­son (D- Ga.), would alloc­ate more than $125 million in grants for new voting equip­ment to the states. His bill is a start, but with the next federal elec­tion just 18 months away, there is not much time to waste. Congress and state legis­latures should prior­it­ize shor­ing up elec­tion infra­struc­ture, and begin the process of fund­ing new voting equip­ment today.

(Image: Flickr.com/ Just­grimes)