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Replace Outdated Voting Machines

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Agenda outlines a series of concrete proposals that the next President and Congress should embrace to improve democracy in America.

Published: February 4, 2016

Read our 2019 analysis on voting machines here.

Amer­ica’s voting machines are rapidly aging out. Most machines in use today were purchased between 2000 and 2005 and have a projec­ted lifespan of 10 to 15 years. These anti­quated systems contrib­ute to long lines and are prone to errors like lost votes, “flipped” votes going to the wrong candid­ate, and incor­rect tallies. Main­tain­ing these old machines is both diffi­cult and expens­ive, since replace­ment parts are no longer manu­fac­tured. The Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion concluded there is an “impend­ing crisis… from the wide­spread wear­ing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago.”[1]

Not surpris­ingly, elec­tion offi­cials are well aware of the prob­lem. A Bren­nan Center survey found juris­dic­tions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years. But offi­cials in 22 of these states — 71 percent — said they did not know where they would find the money to pay for them. [2]

In an era of strained state and local budgets, spend­ing money on voting machines hardly seems like an imme­di­ate prior­ity. Yet, we have already seen the consequences. For instance, one expert warned in 1988 that punch card voting systems, like those used in some parts of Flor­ida in 2000, needed to be upgraded or replaced. Twelve years later the pres­id­ency hung in the balance as the nation debated hanging chads, voter error, and lost votes.[3]

Proposal

The federal Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion (EAC) is the agency best equipped to aid states in deal­ing with aging voting equip­ment. It can act as a clear­ing­house, provid­ing crit­ical inform­a­tion on machine prob­lems and solu­tions as well as best prac­tices for main­ten­ance. Yet the EAC was hobbled for four years, until late 2014, because it did not have a quorum of commis­sion­ers. Mean­while, some lawmakers are push­ing for the EAC to be shut down alto­gether.[4]

Instead of trying to kill the EAC, Congress should bolster it. As of this writ­ing, one of the four commis­sioner slots is vacant and should be filled. Equally import­ant, Congress should enhance EAC’s grant programs that can spur improve­ments in tech­no­logy and admin­is­tra­tion.

Why This Can Be Achieved

While anti­quated machines are a concern for the 2016 elec­tion, new innov­a­tions show the next gener­a­tion of voting machines can be more reli­able, more usable, and less expens­ive. Many offi­cials want to use commer­cial-off-the-shelf hard­ware, such as print­ers and tablets, and adapt them for voting. This is far less expens­ive than today’s voting machines and can be easily and cheaply replaced. With proper fund­ing, the same kind of cheap, reli­able computer power that Amer­ic­ans use every day can at last be intro­duced to voting machines.

In the last year, the EAC has done an admir­able job of moving forward on stalled projects, approv­ing long-pending voting machine guidelines and begin­ning the process to create new ones. Of a $3.8 tril­lion federal budget, the cost of the EAC is micro­scopic, a mere $10 million. That’s less than five cents per registered voter.[5]

With demo­cracy at stake, Congress should provide robust support to the EAC so it can supply the neces­sary resources for states and local­it­ies to have voting systems that are accur­ate, effi­cient, and afford­able. The result will be an improved exper­i­ence for all voters.

Resources

  • Amer­ica’s Voting Machines at Risk: Compre­hens­ive study that looks at the prob­lems of outdated voting equip­ment, proposes some solu­tions, and explores the prom­ise new tech­no­logy.
     
  • How to Fix the Voting System: Report that contains inform­a­tion on improv­ing the usab­il­ity of ballots and voting machines.

Next: End Long Lines


[1] The Pres­id­en­tial Comm’n on Elec­tion Admin., The Amer­ican Voting Exper­i­ence: Report and Recom­mend­a­tions of the Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion 62 (2014), avail­able at https://www.supportthevoter.gov/files/2014/01/Amer-Voting-Exper-final-draft-01–09–14–508.pdf.

[2] Lawrence Norden, Chris­topher Famighetti, Amer­ica’s Voting Machines at Risk (2015), avail­able at http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/public­a­tion/amer­icas-voting-machines-risk.

[3] The warn­ings of the Commis­sion and the relat­ive lack of atten­tion they have received repres­ent an eerie repe­ti­tion  of the silence that greeted a 1988 National Bureau of Stand­ards report writ­ten by Roy Salt­man, who argued that punch card voting systems,  like the kind used in Ft Laud­er­dale, Flor­ida needed to be upgraded or replaced, or seri­ous consequences would follow. See Roy G. Salt­man, Nat’l Bureau of Stand­ards, Accur­acy, Integ­rity and Secur­ity in Compu­ter­ized Vote-Tally­ing (1988), avail­able at http://www.itl.nist.gov/lab/specpubs/500–158.htm. In addi­tion, elec­tion offi­cials in Massachu­setts and New Hamp­shire banned the use of punch card voting machines before 2000. Lucy Morgan, Punch Cards Fraught with Errors, St. Peters­burg Times, Nov. 14, 2000, avail­able at http://www.sptimes.com/News/111400/Elec­tion2000/Punch_cards_fraught_w.shtml; Richard Lacayo, Is This Any Way to Vote?, TIME, Nov. 27, 2000, avail­able at http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2047399,00.html; John Minz, Most States Don’t Count Dimples, Wash. Post, Nov. 24, 2000, avail­able at http://www.wash­ing­ton­post.com/archive/polit­ics/2000/11/24/most-states-dont-count-dimples/d2c0741a-4a2d-474d-8321–643ea930a375/.

[4] See Elec­tion Assist­ance Termin­a­tion Act, H.R. 195, 114th Cong. (2015).