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New Analysis Shows Voting Machines Remain Vulnerable Ahead of 2020 Election

Voting systems face threats not only from foreign countries, but also the wear-and-tear of decades of use. Election officials are largely doing what they can, but recent progress is short of what current circumstances demand.

March 5, 2019

Media Contact: Rebecca Autrey,, 646–292–8316

New York, N.Y. – Amer­ica’s voting machines fall far short of neces­sary secur­ity require­ments and recom­men­ded best-prac­tices going into the 2020 elec­tion, leav­ing them vulner­able to cyber­at­tacks or malfunc­tions on Elec­tion Day. Despite progress last year, the new analysis from the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU Law shows that, among other prob­lems, 45 states are using voting equip­ment that’s no longer manu­fac­tured, and 12 continue to use paper­less machines as their primary polling place equip­ment in at least some counties. 

Voting Machines at Risk – Where We Stand Today is culled from Bren­nan Center research and a recent survey sent to local elec­tion offi­cials nation­wide. It updates earlier analyses from March 2018 and Septem­ber 2015

There have been some prom­ising devel­op­ments at the state and federal level, includ­ing $380 million alloc­ated by Congress last year to help states bolster elec­tion secur­ity. But research­ers found that outdated equip­ment is still a staple in juris­dic­tions across the coun­try, and post-elec­tion checks are haphaz­ard. The 937 elec­tion offi­cials across 46 states who answered the survey also told the Bren­nan Center they still lack the funds for adequate train­ing, IT support, and more. 

“It’s essen­tial that we prior­it­ize fixing our elec­tion infra­struc­ture now, ahead of the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in 2020,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Bren­nan Center’s Demo­cracy Program. “We face threats not only from foreign coun­tries, but also the wear-and-tear of decades of use. Elec­tion offi­cials are largely doing what they can, but recent progress is short of what current circum­stances demand. More money is needed, both from Congress and state legis­latures, to ensure that juris­dic­tions have what they need to ensure free, fair, and secure elec­tions.” 

Elec­tion offi­cials in 40 states said they’re using equip­ment that’s more than 10 years old, one less than last year. The age of the machines can make it diffi­cult or impossible to find replace­ment parts in the event parts break. It can also contrib­ute to malfunc­tions that create long lines on Elec­tion Day. And too often machines are so old that vendors aren’t writ­ing secur­ity patches for the soft­ware anymore, leav­ing them more vulner­able to cyber­at­tacks. 

“We are driv­ing the same car in 2019 that we were driv­ing in 2004, and the main­ten­ance costs are mount­ing up,” said Rokey Sule­man, a former elec­tions director for Rich­land County, South Caro­lina. 
Twelve states still use paper­less voting machines in some areas – down from 13 states in March 2018. Four – Delaware, Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, and South Caro­lina – use them statewide. Shantiel Soeder, elec­tion and compli­ance admin­is­trator at Cuyahoga County Board of Elec­tions, said using machines without paper back-ups is “almost irre­spons­ible.”

This risky equip­ment does not produce a record that can be used to either verify elec­tronic vote tallies in the event of a hack, or to help identify a hack through a post-elec­tion audit­ing process. 

Research­ers found that even if states are using machines that produce paper records, often there’s no require­ment to perform audits of the results after an elec­tion. In 2020, only two states will mandate post-elec­tion checks that provide the highest level of confid­ence in the accur­acy of the final vote tally, known as risk-limit­ing audits. That number could increase soon – juris­dic­tions in Michigan, Rhode Island, Virginia, Indi­ana, and Cali­for­nia have recently piloted risk-limit­ing audits or indic­ate that they plan to in 2019. Twenty-five states and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., conduct pre-certi­fic­a­tion audits of some kind.  

Elec­tion offi­cials also told the Bren­nan Center that the need for funds wasn’t only about new equip­ment and audits. They cited regu­lar IT support, addi­tional train­ing for staff, and stronger phys­ical secur­ity of stor­age loca­tions and polling places as prior­it­ies before the 2020 elec­tion. 

To read the full analysis, click here