A new report shows that thousands of U.S. voting systems are old and malfunctioning, which could spell disaster for the upcoming presidential elections.

The 2000 Bush v. Gore election catastrophe was a wake-up call that American voting was experiencing severe technical difficulties. In response, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which provided over $2 billion to stimulate the voting machine market. It was enough to help purchase new voting systems for the majority of jurisdictions across the nation by 2006.  

Consider also that by 2006, Apple’s iPod was already in its sixth generation. Today, the company makes a watch that can measure a fetal heartbeat. Meanwhile, voting hardware remains stuck in 2006.

This is a problem that few government officials are able or willing to deal with, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice called “America’s Voting Machines at Risk.” Among the key findings in the report:

  • Nearly every state is using some machines that are no longer manufactured, and many election officials struggle to find replacement parts;
  • Election jurisdictions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years. Officials from 22 of these states said they did not know where they would get the money to pay for them;
  • Without federal or state funding, wealthier counties will replace aging machines, while poorer counties will be forced to use outdated machines for far longer than they should.

In the report, Center for Civic Design Director Dana Chisnell notes that, while many currently operating machines were bought by 2006, “They were designed and engineered in the 1990s.” So while technology for texting and emailing has improved dozens of times over, our infrastructure for voting—a cornerstone of democracy and civic participation—is stuck in the flip-phone era.

Researchers who interviewed dozens of local-level election officials for the report identified a number of immediate concerns, among them “an inability to connect voting machines to current computers because the software is unsupported and outdated.”

​Other problems identified in the report—like equipment failures and difficulty finding replacement parts to fix broken machines—are already manifesting. As the report states plainly, “There is no escaping the immediate need to plan and set aside sufficient funds to buy new machines.”

(Brennan Center for Justice)

To be clear, the solution is not as simple as finding a way to cast votes online, which most experts in this field have ruled out; the web is just not a secure enough bulwark yet. No, the problem lies more with hardware and design. As CityLab reported last month, election officials in Los Angeles county are working on better-designed equipment that actually considers the voter’s user experience. The report highlights L.A. county’s efforts around this, but also points out that the county is mostly an anomaly in its reform efforts.

(Brennan Center for Justice)

What makes this a difficult subject to discuss is that this simple revelation could lead to voter distrust. Just as news of data security breaches leaves consumers wary of sharing their sensitive information online, news of voter-technology vulnerabilities could lead some to not vote.

“Because this older technology does not reflect voters’ experience with technology in daily life,” reads the report, “it can lead to an erosion of confidence in the system.”

So how can election officials reconcile the fact that we’re living in an age of constant iOS updates, yet our voting machinery is from the age of the graphing calculator? Many of them believe that Apple or Android devices could be an important part of the answer. For starters, they’re cheaper: As the report points out, the cost of an iPad Air 2 is about 10 percent of the cost of the average voting machine. And they already have the kind of user-friendly experience that people are used to. New devices could be synthesized with traditional ways of vetting election results, according to the report:

Many officials would like to use systems that employ commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware—such as an iPad or Android tablet—as a “digital ballot-marking device.”131 Voters could combine these touch screen products with COTS printers that produce a paper ballot for the voter to review. The voter could then submit this “paper ballot” into a scanner, which both tabulates ballots and stores an image of the ballot.

The major obstacle to obtaining the necessary upgrades is funding. The Brennan Center estimates it could at least $1 billion, conservatively, to make all of the necessary replacements. But there’s little hope that such funding would materialize in time for next year’s presidential elections. Too many government officials just don’t see it as a priority—even at the local level, where election administration is actually handled:

Meanwhile, many state legislators and county bodies responsible for funding new equipment do not appear to see the looming crisis as a matter of great urgency, and have rejected the idea that they should be responsible for the increased costs associated with greater maintenance and new purchases. In fact, while nearly every state and county election office looking to purchase machines will need an infusion of cash, many state agencies have instead seen their budgets cut or raised concerns about future funding.

Ken Terry, director of the Allen County, Ohio, Board of Elections, told the report’s authors that in his state, “in addition to all the budget problems that everyone is having at the local level, the state government cut local government budgets, which has made the problem even worse.” In December 2014, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe proposed spending $28 million to replace dated voting machines, which the general assembly called for in 2007. But state legislators did not approve the funding, leaving it to local governments to figure out how to finance the unfunded mandate.  

(Brennan Center for Justice)

Meanwhile, states are paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars to roll out new voter ID laws in the name of “election integrity.” Some have paid even more, into the millions, to defend voter ID in court, even though the problem it purports to resolve is middlingand that’s being generous. Many of those states have not coughed up money to solve their voting machine problem, which is far more crippling to election integrity.

In any case, these flaws have to be fixed. It may take another Bush/Gore-scale disaster to finally get the purse-string holders to take this issue seriously. (This is something that election officials have actually been told when raising questions about how to fund new voter tech.)        

“We need to be honest with policymakers,” Edgardo Cortes, commissioner of elections in Virginia, says in the report. “They need to know if you don’t replace equipment there will be repercussions.”

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