Future Tense

Looks Like Our Voting Machines Can’t Handle a Little Humidity

We should really get better at this whole election infrastructure thing.

A woman inserts her ballot into the machine.
A woman inserts her ballot into the machine after voting at a polling station during the midterm elections on Tuesday.
Mark Ralston/Getty Images

Americans have had a lot to worry about this Election Day. Misinformation on social media, voter disenfranchisement, and long lines at the polls have all made it hard for certain groups of voters to flex their electoral muscles.

But on Tuesday, some voters trying to cast ballots faced another, less familiar obstacle: humidity. Specifically, high humidity levels leading to paper jams in voting machines.

In North Carolina, elevated humidity levels rendered paper ballots unreadable by vote-tabulating machines in several precincts. Similarly, in Alabama, a county probate judge said that humidity-swollen ballots were to blame for voting issues reported in at least two polling places. And in New York City, soggy ballots—some allegedly dampened after handling by voters that had to wait in long lines in the rain—likely led to some of the many malfunctioning scanners reported across the boroughs.

As Quartz reporter Annalisa Merelli explains, many voting machines are known to be fickle instruments that “will only tolerate small variations in the paper specifics” and the paper ballots “will only withstand certain weather conditions.” What’s more, clearing humidity-related jams gets tricky since machines are sealed to avoid hacking or tampering. In other words, Tuesday’s issues were somewhat predictable (though no less troubling for it).

Weather is a common concern in elections, with poor weather tending to dampen—both literally and figuratively—voter turnout. But Tuesday’s ballot-related troubles show we can’t just look at how weather affects people showing up to the polls. We also need to pay attention to the consequences weather can have once voters get there.

And, of course, the true culprit with these humidity-related problems isn’t the humidity itself—it’s the precincts and election officials that continue to OK the use of dated or otherwise unreliable voting machines, despite overwhelming evidence that these machines might malfunction. As a joint Vox and ProPublica report from March detailed, old and vulnerable voting machines may pose more of a threat (albeit, a significantly less sexy threat) to the integrity of American elections than hacking by foreign actors. These old machines, the story explains, “are plagued with more mundane technical problems that states have been slow to address.” And those mundane problems have not-so-mundane consequences.

The good news? We have two years to get better before the 2020 elections. Humidity probably isn’t going away—but hopefully some of our outdated voting infrastructure will.