With reports of long lines around the country, often due to voting machine failures, many are asking why we spent billions of dollars on new voting technology over the last decade and what can be done to improve things. Are we doomed to continued problems unless we scrap it all, and spend billions again? Last night, while talking about long lines to vote, President Obama said, “We have to fix that.” The good news is there are a couple of straightforward ways to improve our systems at little or no cost.
First, we can create a national clearinghouse of voting machine problems. Virtually every machine failure reported yesterday has occurred on the same machine before — but usually somewhere else. Poll workers may not know what to do when voting scanners stop working in New York. But if New York had some understanding of how often these same scanners failed in California four years ago, for instance, why they failed, and how to get them up and running again, we wouldn’t see the same problems pop up again and again. When they did happen, poll workers could be trained in advance as to what to do to ensure that people still had a way to vote.
As the Brennan Center detailed in this report, a publicly available, searchable database, similar to databases for consumer products, cars and airplanes, would help catch voting machine defects early and give every jurisdiction around the country the tools to ensure that usability and technology flaws (which are inevitable on voting machines) don’t muck up our elections.
Second, we could create a federal agency that advises underfunded local jurisdictions on what accounting and audit steps to take to ensure that all votes are accurately counted, how to plan and prepare for emergencies like Superstorm Sandy, and determine where to place and set up polling places and machines to reduce long lines.
Oh, wait, we already have an agency like that: it’s called the Election Assistance Commission. Unfortunately, for more than a year it’s been without commissioners or an Executive Director. Upon its return, Congress should make sure that it gets this vital agency back up and running.