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Expert Brief

Voting Machines at Risk: Where We Stand Today

While significant progress has been made in shoring up this country’s electoral infrastructure in recent years, local election officials maintain that much still needs to be done ahead of the 2020 election.

As we barrel toward 2020 and a moment­ous pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, the need to replace anti­quated voting equip­ment has become increas­ingly urgent. This is true for at least two reas­ons. First, older systems are more likely to fail and are increas­ingly diffi­cult to main­tain. In the 2018 midterm elec­tion, old and malfunc­tion­ing voting machines across the coun­try led to long lines at the polls, leav­ing voters frus­trated – ­and, in some cases, caus­ing them to leave before cast­ing a ballot.[1]

Second, older systems are less likely to have the kind of secur­ity features we expect of voting machines today. Chris Krebs, head of cyber­se­cur­ity at the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity has warned that the 2020 elec­tion is “the big game” for adversar­ies look­ing to attack Amer­ican demo­cracy. [2] Mean­while, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently noted that machines that do not produce a prin­tout of a voter’s selec­tions that can be veri­fied by the voter and used in audits – should be “removed from service as soon as possible,” to ensure the secur­ity and integ­rity of Amer­ican elec­tions. [3]

This report is an update to earlier analyses conduc­ted by the Bren­nan Center in Septem­ber 2015 and March 2018, which examined the state of voting machines and elec­tion secur­ity in the United States.[4] Since our last update, Congress provided $380 million in Help Amer­ica Vote Act (HAVA) funds to help states to bolster their elec­tion secur­ity. For the most part, states have used this money for crit­ical secur­ity meas­ures. For instance, the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion (EAC) has repor­ted that states will use $136 million of this fund­ing to strengthen elec­tion cyber­se­cur­ity, $103 million to purchase new voting equip­ment, and $21 million to improve post-elec­tion audits.[5] But this only scratches the surface of invest­ments that are needed in the coming years. As we noted when the grants were issued, the way the money was distrib­uted means it was insuf­fi­cient to replace the vast major­ity of the most vulner­able machines before the 2020 elec­tion.[6]

Below we detail data – culled from a recent Bren­nan Center survey of elec­tion offi­cials, plus the Bren­nan Center’s own research and monit­or­ing of the current state of elec­tion tech­no­logy and secur­ity prac­tices – to provide a snap­shot of the current state of voting tech­no­logy in the United States, as well as to detail crit­ical steps that should be taken to increase the secur­ity and reli­ab­il­ity of Amer­ican elec­tions ahead of 2020.

  1. Voting Machines Aging Out of Use

This winter Bren­nan Center surveyed elec­tion offi­cials around the coun­try on their need to replace their voting machines. Local elec­tion offi­cials in 254 juris­dic­tions across 37 states told us they plan to purchase new voting equip­ment in the near future.[7] For some, the need to make these replace­ments was extremely urgent: 121 offi­cials in 31 states told us they must replace their equip­ment before the 2020 elec­tion.[8] Two-thirds of these offi­cials repor­ted that they do not have the adequate funds to do so, even after the distri­bu­tion of addi­tional HAVA funds from Congress.

The need to replace this equip­ment is largely related to the fact that voting machines across the coun­try are “aging out,” as more than one elec­tion offi­cial told us.[9] For instance, 45 states are currently using voting equip­ment that is no longer manu­fac­tured (in the case of New York and Rhode Island, this only applies to access­ible ballot mark­ing devices that are not used to count votes).[10] Juris­dic­tions that use machines that are no longer produced face chal­lenges when trying to main­tain them, includ­ing diffi­culty find­ing replace­ment parts. In an inter­view with the Bren­nan Center, Rokey Sule­man, former elec­tions director for Rich­land County, South Caro­lina, expressed feel­ing “lucky to be able get spare parts” for the machines in his county, which had been discon­tin­ued, but noted that it’s “not going to keep being that way in the near future.” [11]

And even when elec­tion offi­cials can get spare parts, for those with paper­less equip­ment, it might not make sense to keep pour­ing money into an anti­quated system. “For years, my voters have been asking for a system that provides a paper trail. I don’t want to spend money on some­thing that isn’t in line with where we want go as a county,” said Dana Debeau­voir, county clerk for Travis County, Texas. [12]

Many of these machines are reach­ing the end of their lifespan. Elec­tion offi­cials in 40 states told us they are using machines that are at least a decade old this year.[13] The lifespan of elec­tronic voting machines can vary, but experts agree that systems over a decade old are more likely to need to be replaced for secur­ity and reli­ab­il­ity reas­ons. Sule­man compared main­tain­ing old voting equip­ment to main­tain­ing an old car. “When a car starts aging, you need to change the radi­ator fluid, the battery, the fan belt. We are driv­ing the same car in 2019 that we were driv­ing in 2004, and the main­ten­ance costs are mount­ing up.”[14] He also noted that South Caro­lin­a’s systems run on soft­ware that was developed decades ago, includ­ing Windows XP. Too often, vendors no longer write secur­ity patches for such soft­ware, leav­ing machines more vulner­able to cyber­at­tacks. [15]

Finally, a dispro­por­tion­ate number of these old systems have no voter veri­fied paper backup, some­thing that NAS, the intel­li­gence commit­tees in both the U.S. Senate and House of Repres­ent­at­ives, as well as secur­ity experts around the coun­try, have argued is an unne­ces­sary secur­ity risk.[16] In 2019, 12 states still use paper­less elec­tronic machines as the primary polling place equip­ment in at least some counties and towns (Delaware, Geor­gia, Indi­ana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Caro­lina, Tennessee and Texas). Four (Delaware, Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, and South Caro­lina) continue to use such systems statewide.[17]

  1. Prior­it­iz­ing Paper Ballots (With Some Excep­tions)

Almost every elec­tion offi­cial who respon­ded that they planned on repla­cing voting equip­ment soon stated that their hope was to find new machines that produce voter-veri­fied paper backups that could be used in a recount or audit (this includes juris­dic­tions in 9 of the 12 states using paper­less voting equip­ment; elec­tion offi­cials in the three remain­ing states, Indi­ana, Louisi­ana and New Jersey, did not respond to our survey). Of these 254 local juris­dic­tions, roughly half (139 juris­dic­tions) plan on purchas­ing optical scan machines with access­ible ballot-mark­ing devices, 13 percent (33 juris­dic­tions) plan on purchas­ing DREs (direct-record­ing elec­tronic voting machines) with a paper trail, and 6 percent (15 juris­dic­tions) plan on purchas­ing ballot-mark­ing devices only. The rest did not specify what equip­ment they are plan­ning on purchas­ing or are currently unde­cided.

While only one local elec­tion offi­cial (from Texas) respon­ded that he hoped to replace his current paper­less system with another paper­less system, it is clear he is not entirely alone. Despite the recent atten­tion to elec­tion secur­ity, and repeated warn­ings by secur­ity experts that voting machines should have a voter-veri­fied paper backup, several counties in Texas have purchased machines without a paper trail since 2016.[18]

Sule­man expressed dismay at the idea of continu­ing to purchase paper­less equip­ment. “Why? Why? Espe­cially with heightened sense of para­noia about outside influ­ence into our elec­tion systems. We need to have a way to inde­pend­ently valid­ate voters’ intent away from tabu­la­tion equip­ment. I don’t under­stand how any elec­tion offi­cial could really consider a totally paper­less system in this day and age.”[19] Shantiel Soeder, elec­tion and compli­ance admin­is­trator at Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Board of Elec­tions, shared Sule­man’s senti­ment. “At the end of the day, we have that ballot that we can always go back to. We still find it import­ant to print out receipts for other trans­ac­tions in our lives. To have abso­lutely no paper, it’s almost irre­spons­ible. These are people’s votes!”[20]

Six of the 12 states (Delaware, Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, New Jersey, South Caro­lina, and Pennsylvania) that still use paper­less elec­tronic machines as the primary polling place equip­ment in at least some juris­dic­tions have either passed laws or taken other actions to replace those systems with machines that produce a paper backup. Of those, Delaware appears to have secured enough funds to replace its systems this year.[21] New Jersey and Pennsylvania have yet to secure suffi­cient fund­ing for such purchases.[22] In Geor­gia and South Caro­lina, state elec­tion offi­cials have reques­ted funds to do so, and those requests are currently being considered by the state legis­latures.[23] Louisi­ana appears to have secured suffi­cient funds to replace equip­ment, but its purchase of new machines is stalled due to a contro­versy over how the state conduc­ted its bidding process.[24]

Of the remain­ing six states (Indi­ana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missis­sippi, Tennessee, and Texas), Kentucky Secret­ary of State Alison Lunder­gan Grimes and the state board of elec­tions have called for replace­ment of all paper­less systems, but do not yet have suffi­cient funds to do so.[25] Kansas recently prohib­ited counties from purchas­ing new DREs that do not produce a paper record and imple­men­ted a post-elec­tion manual audit require­ment this year, but has not yet forced counties continu­ing to use paper­less machines to replace them.[26] Indi­ana, Missis­sippi, Tennessee, and Texas do not appear to be taking steps to replace their paper­less equip­ment before 2020, with Indi­ana’s Secret­ary of State Connie Lawson stat­ing that the federal money provided last year was insuf­fi­cient to replace the state’s machines.[27]

  1. Progress on Post-Elec­tion Audits

Cyber­se­cur­ity experts agree that routine and robust post-elec­tion audits of voter-veri­fied paper records are neces­sary to ensure that the paper records provide real value. Currently, 22 states and the District of Columbia conduct post-elec­tion audits before certi­fy­ing their elec­tion results.[28] The Bren­nan Center, along with many other elec­tion integ­rity groups and secur­ity experts, has urged the more wide­spread adop­tion of risk-limit­ing audits (RLAs), considered the “gold stand­ard” of post-elec­tion audits.

RLAs employ stat­ist­ical models to provide a high level of confid­ence that a soft­ware hack or bug did not produce the wrong outcome. Effect­ive RLAs can go a long way toward identi­fy­ing any poten­tial inac­cur­acy in elec­tion results, whether acci­dental or purpose­ful.[29]

As of Febru­ary 2019, only two states require RLAs: Color­ado and Rhode Island. Two addi­tional ones, Ohio and Wash­ing­ton, allow elec­tion offi­cials to select them from a list of audit types that meet the state’s post-elec­tion audit require­ment.[30] A bill to require RLAs is pending in New York, while Geor­gia, Indi­ana, South Caro­lina, and New Jersey are all consid­er­ing bills that would expressly author­ize either pilots or imme­di­ate imple­ment­a­tion of RLAs.[31] Several more juris­dic­tions have recently piloted these post-elec­tion audits, and even more intend do so in 2019. This includes elec­tion juris­dic­tions in Michigan, Rhode Island, Virginia, Indi­ana, and Cali­for­nia.[32] Both Rhode Island and New Jersey used the 2018 Congres­sional HAVA grants to pilot RLAs in the last few months.[33]

  1. Addi­tional Elec­tion Secur­ity Prior­it­ies

In addi­tion to repla­cing voting machines, elec­tion offi­cials expressed the need for addi­tional fund­ing for other secur­ity related meas­ures. A top fund­ing prior­ity for elec­tion offi­cials was the hiring of more IT support staff, partic­u­larly at the local level. County elec­tion offi­cials are liter­ally on the front-lines defend­ing our elec­tion equip­ment, yet they are frequently the least well-resourced offices. Richards Rydecki, assist­ant admin­is­trator for the Wiscon­sin Elec­tions Commis­sion, told us that one of chal­lenges Wiscon­sin faces with being so decent­ral­ized is the vary­ing levels of county and muni­cipal resources. “Some of our counties might have only one county clerk and one more person work­ing on elec­tions. And most have very limited IT support. We would like to explore a program to provide contrac­ted IT support on a regional basis.”[34]

Dana Debeau­voir was one of several offi­cials who noted that addi­tional funds should be used by juris­dic­tions around the coun­try to purchase Albert sensors, a network monitor that alerts elec­tion offi­cials when unusual activ­ity is going on that may be putting their data at risk.[35] As Debeau­voir puts it, it’s a matter of learn­ing how to prac­tice “good computer hygiene.”

Other items that elec­tion offi­cials mentioned include provid­ing more train­ing for their staff (cyber­se­cur­ity, procure­ment, etc.), strength­en­ing the phys­ical secur­ity of their stor­age loca­tions and polling places (secur­ity cameras, better invent­ory manage­ment, etc.) and putting in place robust post-elec­tion audits.[36]

The authors thank the U.S. Vote Found­a­tion for provid­ing crit­ical support for our survey of elec­tion offi­cials, as well as the elec­tion offi­cials who respon­ded to the survey and agreed to be inter­viewed for this analysis, and our Bren­nan Center colleagues, Jeanne Park and Lorraine Cade­martori, for their care­ful review and edits. Any errors should be attrib­uted to the authors.