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Analysis

Vote Flipping Claims Underline Urgent Need to Fix Voting Machines

Allegations that votes cast in the Georgia governor’s race for Democrat Stacey Abrams instead went to Republican Brian Kemp highlight the problem of our aging machines.

October 24, 2018

The Geor­gia NAACP filed a complaint Tues­day claim­ing that some voting machines recor­ded votes incor­rectly in the state’s closely-fought and high-profile governor’s race. Accord­ing to the complaint, filed with the office of Secret­ary of State Brian Kemp, some votes cast for Demo­cratic candid­ate Stacey Abrams in Bartow and Dodge counties were recor­ded initially for her Repub­lican oppon­ent, Kemp.

It’s not clear whether all of the alleged mistakes were correc­ted. The Geor­gia NAACP also says it plans to file complaints in Henry and Cobb counties in response to reports of similar epis­odes of “vote flip­ping”—mean­ing a vote going to a candid­ate who the voter didn’t select, thanks to a machine malfunc­tion. 

The alleged snafus are just the latest voting prob­lem in Geor­gia, where thou­sands of regis­tra­tions have been put on hold thanks to the state’s strict “exact match” policy, and numer­ous voters have been purged from the rolls. 

These are just the latest example of “vote flip­ping”

Vote flip­ping is not new. During the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, there were reports of vote flip­ping in a number of states includ­ing Geor­gia, Nevada, North Caro­lina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. There were similar reports from Pennsylvania in 2012.

Vote flip­ping is a tech­no­lo­gical issue. Currently, Geor­gia and 19 other states use touch­screen DRE (Direct Record­ing Elec­tronic) voting machines as the primary polling place equip­ment in at least some polling places. 

Old touch­screen voting machines are espe­cially vulner­able to vote flip­ping. Many of these machines rely on outdated tech­no­logy and can cause prob­lems such as calib­ra­tion errors. “It can be some­thing as simple as the glue between the screen and the machine degrad­ing,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Bren­nan Center’s Demo­cracy Program. Geor­gia is also one of 13 states that still use paper­less DRE systems, and one of five that uses them statewide. Paper­less voting machines are partic­u­larly unre­li­able because they do not produce a paper record that either voters or elec­tion offi­cials can review.

An alarm­ing number of voting machines across the coun­try are out of date

Vote flip­ping is a symp­tom of a broader prob­lem: Many of our voting systems are out of date. In next month’s midterm elec­tions, 41 states will be using compu­ter­ized voting machines that are at least 10 years old, accord­ing to a Bren­nan Center analysis. That’s danger­ously close to or past the end of the expec­ted lifespan for the core compon­ents of most of our voting systems. In addi­tion, as of 2018, 43 states and the District of Columbia use polling machine models that are no longer manu­fac­tured. The use of these machines is troub­ling because in the event of a tech­nical malfunc­tion, it can be diffi­cult to find replace­ment parts and tech­ni­cians with the abil­ity to repair them. 

Aging voting tech­no­logy makes our elec­tion infra­struc­ture vulner­able to a range of threats includ­ing break­down, malfunc­tion, and hack­ing. It can also cause negat­ive Elec­tion Day exper­i­ences for voters, which in turn can under­mine their confid­ence in the system — and in the accur­acy of elec­tion results. 

We need Congress to act—and for voters to speak out if their vote is flipped

There is grow­ing support for newer voting machines. However, repla­cing elec­tion equip­ment on a national scale could cost more than $1 billion. Insuf­fi­cient fund­ing could also fuel a dispar­ity in which poorer counties bear a dispro­por­tion­ate burden of aging infra­struc­ture. In addi­tion, Congress should also mandate post-elec­tion audits to confirm the valid­ity of elec­tion results. One effect­ive model suppor­ted by the Bren­nan Center is a “risk-limit­ing audit” in which elec­tion offi­cials compare the elec­tronic vote count with a phys­ical paper trail, while protect­ing the anonym­ity of voters.

The timeline for congres­sional action is unclear. But in the event of vote flip­ping, there are prac­tical meas­ures that voters and elec­tion offi­cials can take. If voters see their machines flip votes at their polling loca­tion, they should tell poll work­ers, who in turn should take the comprom­ised system out of commis­sion. Elec­tion offi­cials should then issue emer­gency paper ballots until the machine can be fixed or replaced. There should be at least two to three hours worth of these emer­gency ballots prepared in advance. “While early voting has star­ted and Elec­tion Day is less than two weeks away, it’s still not too late to make sure that there are suffi­cient emer­gency paper ballots in place,” said Norden.

(Image: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)