Election

America's Looming Crisis in Voting Technology

The nation’s voting equipment is quickly becoming obsolete. But even if local governments could afford upgrades, no new machines exist to buy.
by | July 2014
Orange County Registrar of Voters

More and more often these days, Neal Kelley and his staff find themselves rooting through shelves at used computer stores in Orange County, Calif., looking for something they can’t find anywhere else: laptops that run on Windows 2000. Kelley is the registrar of voters in Orange County, and one component of his election equipment still runs on the Microsoft operating system from 14 years ago.

As in most places around the country, Orange County’s voting technology is based on federal standards set after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. The razor-thin presidential election in 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush revealed that outdated technology had left thousands of votes uncounted. With HAVA, Congress encouraged local governments to install electronic voting equipment, resulting in a wave of upgrades across the country. Between 2002 and 2004, Congress allocated more than $3 billion for some 8,000 local jurisdictions to replace the punch card devices and lever machines they had been using for more than 30 years. But today, a decade later, that upgraded election infrastructure is quickly becoming obsolete.

In a worst-case scenario, current equipment will start to fail in the next couple years, forcing fewer voting booths to process more ballots, a recipe for longer lines and voter frustration. “What you don’t want is disenfranchised voters who are deciding not to cast a ballot because of these issues,” says Kelley. “We can’t let ourselves get to that point. We need to be ahead of this curve.”

It’s an impending crisis for states and localities. “Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines,” the Presidential Commission on Election Administration reported in January, “and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had the funds.” In other words, the newer technology simply isn’t there. And even if it were, localities couldn’t afford it.

Although HAVA ushered in significant improvements -- along with federal funding to make them a reality -- much of the election machinery was never intended to last more than a decade. Now the cost of installing modern equipment is discouraging many localities from addressing the issue. Meanwhile, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission hasn’t updated its standards for voting technology since 2005, making vendors skittish about modernizing their products too much without knowing how regulations might change. Even if the regulations were clearer, manufacturers would have to deal with an expensive process for getting new products tested and certified, estimated to cost more than $1 million per voting machine.

So far, election officials have tried to avoid expensive replacements by extending the life of the equipment with simple process-related changes. Letting citizens vote by mail, for example, reduces the number of people coming to polling booths, placing less strain on the plastic feeder motors that pump out print copies of each completed electronic ballot. Nonetheless, jurisdictions across the country will have to take broader action within the next few years if they want to avoid catastrophe.

System upgrades cost a lot of money. Orange County, for example, sets aside $250,000 annually for election maintenance. But buying a whole new system -- which Kelley says the county will need by 2016 -- will cost about $20 million. Kelley says he expects a difficult debate about competing public priorities when he makes his budget request to county supervisors. “You’re talking about broad tax dollars,” he says. “How do you balance [election equipment] against public safety and health care?”

Some localities want to develop their own upgraded voting tech, rather than rely on what’s available on the market. Travis County, Texas, for instance, has decided to eschew the handful of private companies that usually supply election equipment to local government. Instead, says Dana DeBeauvoir, who oversees elections in the county, Travis will ask for bids to create an entirely new system. “What’s on the marketplace isn’t very good and it’s horrifically expensive,” she says. In general, vendors sell proprietary hardware that is complex and not interchangeable. DeBeauvoir’s main gripe is that even the newest products don’t include modern security features, such as allowing voters to review printouts before ballots are cast. If successful, her election system would rely on open-source software that could be shared, at little cost or no cost, with other jurisdictions.

A similar experiment is under way in Los Angeles County, where the county clerk is trying to design a system that can accommodate 11 different languages and more than 4 million registered voters. While election officials across the country see both efforts as groundbreaking, they say neither will serve as a solution for the immediate problem of failing machinery. “You’re talking about something that’d be untested,” Kelley says. “There’s just not going to be enough time to adapt to what Travis County and Los Angeles do.”

MORE: L.A. County Designs a Whole New Voting System

Besides, most jurisdictions probably won’t want dramatic upgrades in technology. They just need machinery that isn’t at risk of a systemwide failure. “Election equipment does not need to be on the cutting edge, and it probably should not be on the cutting edge,” says Lori Edwards, supervisor of elections in Polk County, Fla. “It just needs to be safe, secure and reliable.”

Just getting to that point, however, could cost billions nationwide over the next few years. “We have a big national problem,” says DeBeauvoir. “And it’s going to be front and center in everybody’s jurisdiction pretty soon.”

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