Voting Technology Needs an Upgrade, But Who Will Pay for It?

Even though most polls are working with decades-old machines that lose or miscount votes, states and the federal government are largely ignoring the problem.
by | November 2016
Touch-screen voting, c. 2008 (Alejandra Laviada/Polaris)

The upkeep of voting equipment doesn’t usually figure into a candidate’s campaign rhetoric. But when Nellie Gorbea ran for secretary of state in Rhode Island in 2014, she pledged to make her state’s elections “fair, fast and accurate.” That meant replacing machines purchased in the late 1990s that were breaking down from age and years of use.

“We had equipment that was literally falling apart at polling locations,” Gorbea says. “People would try to put their ballot in the ballot tabulator and it would stop working.” In the presidential primaries this spring, a failed tabulator at one location caused a 45-minute delay before officials could wheel in another one.

This month on Election Day, however, voters in Rhode Island won’t encounter obsolete equipment, because Gorbea did what few election officials have been able to do in recent years: She convinced her legislature to pay for new voting technology. With a $9.3 million contract, she leased 590 up-to-date tabulators and scanners, and secured an eight-year maintenance agreement with the vendor.

The entire voting experience in Rhode Island has improved since Gorbea’s election: Electronic poll books allow staff to check voters in faster, and wireless modems help precincts report results on election night.

Unfortunately, Rhode Island is the exception when it comes to modernizing election equipment. Across the country, voting machines are reaching the end of their expected lifespan. Despite warnings of an “impending crisis” from federal officials and independent election experts, it has been years since the last significant update to the nation’s election infrastructure. Congress took action on the problem in 2002 by passing the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), but has done nothing to follow up since then. Meanwhile, the machines HAVA paid for a decade and a half ago are starting to fall apart.

States and localities have always been responsible for election management in America, but most are now finding it difficult to replace their equipment without an infusion of federal money. This has troubling long-term implications. Elections increasingly reflect inequality in public resources, with wealthier counties and townships buying state-of-the-art voting tablets, scanners and high-speed printers, while places with less money are squeaking by on unreliable machines built a generation ago.

The current state of voting equipment has its roots in the Bush-Gore presidential election of 2000, which cast a national spotlight on 30-year-old punch-card devices and lever machines that hadn’t kept up with advancements in computer technology. The Bush-Gore fiasco was directly responsible two years later for HAVA, which distributed about $3 billion to more than 8,000 local jurisdictions. The new federal money resulted in the widespread deployment of new laptop computers, scanners and printers. But the law did not address future costs associated with ongoing maintenance or the purchase of next-generation technology when it was needed.

Punch-card ballots, c. 2000 (Robert King/Getty Images)

The HAVA-era machines have a life expectancy of anywhere from 10 to 20 years; more than 40 states are now using voting machines at least a decade old, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice. These machines predictably crash or fail, resulting in long lines and sometimes in lost votes. Breakdowns usually involve individual parts, such as batteries, memory cards and motherboards, rather than the entire machine.

Two years ago, voters in Virginia Beach, Va., ran into a problem with 26 touch-screen voting machines. Voters would select one candidate and watch the screen register their selection for somebody else. An investigation found that the glue holding the touch screen in place had degraded, causing it to slip and miscount votes.

Most of the time, officials identify defective equipment during tests leading up to the election. Even so, repairing machines comes with its own challenges. Vendors have stopped making some components, forcing some jurisdictions to scour eBay and secondhand computer stores for used parts. In Hamilton County, Ohio, the director of elections has prepared for equipment failure by stockpiling outdated hardware, such as computers that still run on Windows XP. Georgia has hired a contractor to custom-design new machines that operate on Windows 2000.

“As the computer cards or scanners are breaking down, they’re being replaced piecemeal,” says Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill. It’s possible in the short term to keep plugging the leaks and not worry about a sudden, widespread collapse of voting technology. However, “it’s a looming problem,” Merrill says. “We absolutely need to be planning ahead.”

The long-term solution obviously isn’t spare parts -- it’s new machines. But as Rhode Island’s experience illustrates, replacing election infrastructure can cost millions of dollars, and most jurisdictions don’t know where to find that much funding. By the Brennan Center’s estimates, the initial national cost of replacing outdated equipment over the next few years could exceed $1 billion.

No one in Congress has proposed that the federal government foot the bill for such an extensive overhaul of election technology. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia has introduced a bill that would go part of the way toward addressing the problem. His legislation would distribute to states up to $125 million in leftover funds from HAVA to replace equipment that has been in use for at least eight years. In most cases, states would then disburse the money to counties and townships. But the bill lacks bipartisan support, hasn’t received a hearing and will likely die in committee at the end of this year.

In the absence of federal financial assistance, some jurisdictions have gotten creative. In Connecticut, Merrill convinced the state bond commission to issue $6.7 million in bonds for electronic poll books, software for quicker reporting of election results, and new machines for voters with impaired vision and other disabilities. The legislature has helped with smaller budget requests. Still, Merrill says, it would be difficult to find the money necessary for a statewide upgrade of all equipment.

Pulling the lever, c. 1940 (Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Another case in point: Arkansas. Last year, Secretary of State Mark Martin convinced the legislature there to invest up to $30 million in new voting machines. But during budget negotiations, lawmakers did not set aside money for the appropriation. “We’ve made it clear that we think it is a priority, but not everything gets funded every year,” explains Chris Powell, a spokesman for Martin. “It’s the course of legislative business.” In lieu of state funds, the Secretary of State’s office has used some savings to replace technology in 11 of the state’s 75 counties, with plans to pay for more machines as money becomes available.

Some local officials are modernizing their election infrastructure by finding ways of reducing the cost. Five years ago, when Denver looked for a new voting system, Elections Director Amber McReynolds wasn’t satisfied with existing options on the market. Denver wanted commercial off-the-shelf parts that could be integrated with proprietary voting software. Working with a vendor, McReynolds and her team were able to develop a new system that uses commercial scanners, printers and touch-screen tablets. Whereas a full-scale voting machine can cost $4,000 per unit, commercial tablets are available for about one-tenth of the price. And commercial products are more familiar and more intuitive to most voters. “People are on their smartphones and they’re using tablets in their everyday lives,” she says. “When they saw the tablets, it probably took away some of their anxiety and made it easier to use.” In general, vendors have been slow to offer proprietary systems that use some commercial parts, but now that such a hybrid exists, election experts expect it to spread to other parts of the country.

Denver is unusual in that it didn’t have to ask for outside money. The elections division had savings set aside for the upgrade. This was partly because the Colorado General Assembly decided in 2013 to allow residents to vote by mail, an option that used to be available only for people who couldn’t visit a polling location on election day. Now voters receive ballots in the mail that they can send back or drop off at a voting center. In Denver, elections staff count mail ballots at a central location, reducing some of the time and manpower necessary to tally votes.

Denver first used the new equipment in a municipal election last year. Its smooth rollout convinced the state to pilot the same technology in other counties, and then mandate its adoption across Colorado. This month, nearly 20 counties -- or one-third of the state’s local election jurisdictions -- will use the commercial tablets, scanners and printers pioneered in Denver. In the next two years, they will appear in the rest of the state.

At the ballot box, c. 1920 (Library of Congress)

Four years ago, President Obama acknowledged the long wait times voters were encountering at some polling locations, adding, “We have to fix that.” Two years later, a presidential study group on election administration reported back about the “impending crisis in voting technology,” along with recommendations on how to avoid such a crisis in the future. Since that 2014 report, some things have gotten better.

One noticeable effect of the report is the revival of the Election Assistance Commission. When Congress passed HAVA in 2002, it created the commission as an independent agency with bipartisan leadership that would test and certify new election equipment. But by 2014, the commission had become a victim of partisan gridlock, which prevented it from vetting and approving new products by vendors. Without the commission, vendors had less incentive to develop new equipment, essentially putting any advancement in American election technology on pause.

Even the mere existence of the Election Assistance Commission had became the subject of congressional debate, with one Republican member introducing a bill to eliminate the agency altogether. While Democrats put forward nominees for the vacant positions, Republicans did not, and the commission lacked a quorum to conduct official business for four years. It wasn’t until December 2014 that the Senate finally confirmed three nominees -- enough for a quorum.

The reconstituted Election Assistance Commission has been doing everything short of granting large sums of money for new technology. Last year, it published a short guide for state and local officials on ways to extend the lifespan of their voting equipment. The tips covered everything from proper storage in a climate-controlled room to the stress-testing of power sources that are usually the first components to fail. The commission also has created an online repository of requests for proposal from state and local election jurisdictions, allowing officials to learn from one another and borrow best practices.

In the absence of congressional action, the commission has provided the next best thing: a central information source to facilitate conversations among election officials. In addition to Denver’s recent experiment with commercial components, the city and county of Los Angeles and Travis County, Texas, are designing new election systems that could include interchangeable commercial parts and open source software that could be shared with other public agencies. All three localities have sought to design systems that would be less expensive, easier to maintain and more intuitive for voters. It’s a recipe that appeals to officials in other parts of the country as well.

The question for governments going forward is whether, despite the innovations being tried in places such as Colorado and Rhode Island, the lack of federal support will worsen the divide in the quality and capacity of election systems across the country. Will less wealthy places be able to adopt the systems that Denver and Los Angeles develop?

Some counties are using special purpose sales taxes to raise money for ongoing election infrastructure costs, says Merle King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems in Kennesaw, Ga. But that’s an option only where local residents are willing to tax themselves for election capital costs. In rural counties and other places with low median incomes, continued fundraising won’t be feasible. “Ultimately, we’ll go back to what existed prior to HAVA,” King says. “Wealthy counties will have the best systems and the best trained employees using them, and the poorer counties will have to do the best with what they have.”

Even the places that can afford upgrades on their own are in favor of a national solution. “We had to do it ourselves because our back was against the wall,” says Gorbea. She thinks that Congress ought to be investing in the maintenance and modernization of equipment across the country. “Voting machines are democracy’s infrastructure,” she says. “Updating our election systems should be a federally supported ongoing activity.”