As the U.S. presidential election season heats up, the public has focused on the candidates vying for the nation’s top office. But whether Donald Trump will secure the Republican nomination is secondary to a more serious quandary: whether the nation’s voting machines will hold up when Americans head to the polls in 2016.
Nearly every state is using electronic touchscreen and optical-scan voting systems that are at least a decade old, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Beyond the fact the machines are technologically antiquated, after years of wear and tear, states are reporting increasing problems with degrading touchscreens, worn-out modems for transmitting election results, and failing motherboards and memory cards.
States using machines that are at least 15 years old include Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, which means they are far behind even a casual tech user in keeping pace with technological advancements.
The average lifespan of a laptop computer is three to five years, after which most consumers and businesses replace their machines. Computer users also generally upgrade their operating systems every other year or so as Microsoft and Apple release major software overhauls—including security upgrades. But U.S. voting machines, which are responsible for overseeing the most important election in the country, have failed to keep up.
“No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. How can we expect these machines, many of which were designed and engineered in the 1990s, to keep running?,” write Larry Norden and Christopher Famighetti, authors of the Brennan Center report. “[T]he majority of systems in use today are either perilously close to or past their expected lifespans.”
What’s more, many of the machines are running an embedded version of Windows XP, an operating system Microsoft no longer supports or is about to stop supporting, depending upon the version of XP the system is using. That means Microsoft won’t produce patches for any new security holes found in the software. Almost all of the machines in California run on XP, and some even run on Windows 2000.
In addition to this problem, a number of voting machine vendors have gone out of business, making it difficult for states to find parts to service their machines. Forty-three states use systems that are no longer manufactured. Some election officials have resorted to scouring eBay for decommissioned equipment they can cannibalize to extend the life of their machines. Georgia was in such dire straits over the lack of parts for its voting machines that it hired a consultant to build customized hardware that could run its Windows 2000–based election system software.
“[W]e have about 170 of these servers,” Merle King, director of the center for Election Systems told the Brennan Center. “We would order them in blocks of 40 or 80 units so that we could continue to run the Windows 2000 operating systems that we use to run our election management system.”
Some of the systems use PCMCIA storage cards that are increasingly difficult to find, cost about $100 and only store 512 kilobytes of data—as opposed to modern storage devices that cost less than $10 and store gigabytes of data. One county in Florida relies on a slow, outdated, and hard-to-find analog modems that transmit voting results at a snail’s pace of a few kilobytes per second.
Another election official says his system is so outdated that when he purchased Zip disks for his central tabulation system in 2012, he found a coupon in its package that expired in 1999.
One of the most serious problems with aging machines is they are prone to crashes and screen freezes, which can lead to long lines at polling stations and disenfranchised voters who leave without casting ballots.
“We have had motherboards go down—in essence the voting machine just stops working on Election Day because the motherboard is dead,” Joe Rozell, director of elections in Oakland County, Michigan, told the Brennan Center about his aging optical-scan machines.
In 2013, New Mexico was having similar problems with the memory cards used with optical-scan machines it purchased in 2006. “As the machines got older, they had more and more functionality issues,” Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the county clerk in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, told the authors. “In particular there was a high failure rate for memory cards. It got so bad that we had to replace one-third of machines in every election.”
Even more important are reliability and integrity issues with malfunctioning machines that fail to record votes, or record votes improperly. Numerous voting districts have reported calibration problems over the years with electronic touchscreen voting machines seemingly “flipping” votes—that is, recording a vote for a different candidate than the one the voter selected onscreen.
The federal government is well aware of the problem of aging machines. In January 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration issued a report warning of an “impending crisis … from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago.” But so far, lawmakers have done nothing to remedy the situation.
Most of the voting machines in question today were purchased after the contentious presidential race between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000, when the Supreme Court had to settle the Florida recount dispute. Election officials had been complaining for years beforehand about dangling chads and other problems with the machines, warning that they were an impending catastrophe. No one listened until it was too late.
In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which allocated about $4 billion in federal funds to help states purchase new voting equipment. The bill also established the Election Assistance Commission, or EAC, to develop voting standards and oversee federal testing and certification of new voting equipment.
Most states replaced their antiquated punchcard and lever machines with new electronic touchscreen and optical-scan voting machines by 2006. But many of the machines installed then, which are still in use today, were never properly vetted—the initial voting standards and testing processes turned out to be highly flawed—and ultimately introduced new problems in the form of insecure software code and design.
“For better and worse, by providing a huge infusion of money to replace voting equipment in 2002, Congress fundamentally changed the voting machine market, and it did so before new voting system standards or testing programs were in place,” the authors write.
At least 28 states are using systems that were never EAC-certified because they were purchased prior to the establishment of the EAC’s standards, according to Famighetti, a voting rights researcher for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. But even voting machines that the EAC did certify were held to a flawed standard, one that had been written years before the iPhone was on the market, he notes.
“Today there are tougher security standards than there were years ago when all of these machines were bought,” he says. “The systems we’re using were not tested to the security standard that we consider necessary today.”
Earlier this year, for example, Virginia decertified 3,000 voting machines used in about 30 counties after determining that there were severe security problems with the systems, including a poorly secured Wi-Fi feature for tallying votes that would have allowed someone to alter election results without leaving a trace. The machines had been used in hundreds of Virginia elections since 2003.
Despite apparent problems with today’s voting machines, many election officials are reluctant to complain about their machines publicly, for fear of undermining voter and candidate confidence in the machines and election results.
This isn’t the case with Florida, where election officials are loath to experience the kind of debacle they had in 2000. Last year, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said that about 30 of Florida’s 67 counties are in need of new equipment. “It’s kind of one of those things that you don’t think about until something happens,” he told the Sun-Sentinel. “We know we need to do something …” Other states are just as fearful of becoming “another Florida,” as Bob Nichols, the election director in Jackson County, Missouri, told the Kansas City Star.
Officials in nearly three dozen states told the Brennan Center they’re interested in replacing their antiquated voting machines but don’t have money to do so. Most states have used up the Help America Vote Act funds allocated to them in 2002 to purchase the flawed machines they now have. The issue with aging voting machines cuts across class lines: Wealthier election districts in some states have already found the money to buy new machines, while the poorer districts around them remain stuck with failing machines.
The Brennan Center estimates that the cost of replacing systems would run more than $1 billion. Virginia spent about $12,000 per precinct to replace its voting machines this year, and last year New Mexico replaced its aging voting equipment at a cost of $12 million across the state.
Although Norden and Famighetti say it’s probably too late for many districts to obtain the money to replace their machines before next year’s presidential election, there is still plenty that election officials can do in terms of proper storage, preventive maintenance, pre- and post-election testing of machines and contingency planning to prepare for possible failures on Election Day.
“Ultimately, if a jurisdiction needs new machines, these precautionary recommendations can only serve as a stopgap, and are certainly no guarantee that problems will be avoided,” they write. “But if extra precautions are not taken, what is already an extremely worrying situation may be far worse.”
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