Election security a high priority — until it comes to paying for new voting machines
When poll workers arrived at 6 a.m. to open the voting location in Allentown, N.J., for last November’s gubernatorial election, they found that none of the borough’s four voting machines were working. Their replacements, which were delivered about four hours later, also failed. Voters had to cast their ballots on paper, which then were counted by hand.
Machine malfunctions are a regular feature of American elections. Even as worries over cybersecurity and election interference loom, many local jurisdictions depend on aging voting equipment based on frequently obsolete and sometimes insecure technology. And the counties and states that fund elections have dragged their heels on providing the money to buy new equipment.
A ProPublica analysis of voting machines found that over two-thirds of counties in America used machines for the 2016 election that are over a decade old. In most jurisdictions, the same equipment will be used in the 2018 election. In a recent nationwide survey by the Brennan Center for Justice, election officials in 33 states reported needing to replace their voting equipment by 2020. Officials complain the machines are difficult to maintain and susceptible to crashes and failure, problems that lead to long lines and other impediments in voting and, they fear, a sense among voters that the system itself is untrustworthy.
Voting machines are over a decade old in most of the country
The first year voting machines in the 2016 election were used.
Notes: Does not include accessible voting equipment for the disabled, which tends to be even older. In Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin, voting machines are acquired and maintained by towns and cities. Data is aggregated to the county level and shows the median age of used machine in each county. Colorado, Oregon and Washington are vote-by-mail states. Data shows their central counting equipment. Otherwise, a county’s primary polling place equipment is shown. Source: Verified Voting (Kate Rabinowitz/ProPublica)
“Today’s voting systems are not going to last 70 years, they’re going to last 10,” says U.S. Elections Assistance Commission Commissioner Matt Masterson. While previous generations of voting equipment, lever machines and punch cards, had hardware that could be relied on for decades, today’s technology becomes outdated a lot faster.
While election equipment needs to be replaced more often, election administration remains a low funding priority, a ProPublica review of state and local budgets nationwide found.
In 2017, Utah appropriated $275,000 to aid counties in purchasing new voting equipment, but $500,000 to help sponsor the Sundance Film Festival. A few years earlier, Missouri allocated $2 million in grants to localities to replace voting equipment, while increasing the Division of Tourism budget by $10 million to $24 million.
In Allegheny County, Pa., home to Pittsburgh, this year’s Division of Elections budget is $6.1 million. The budget of the county’s Parks Department is nearly three times as big. Across the state in Luzerne County, the Bureau of Elections budget is just under $900,000, while the Buildings and Grounds Department has a budget of $1.4 million.
“Election officials are low on the totem pole, budgetwise,” says Masterson. “A lot of times it’s you or a new gazebo or improvements to the local golf course.”
The cost of new voting equipment is typically many times larger than election administrators’ annual budgets. In both Allegheny and Luzerne counties, local officials estimate new equipment would be roughly four times the cost of their annual elections budget. Neither county has ticketed funds to make such large capital purchases.
Even where voting machines are functional, their age can contribute to errors and confusion on Election Day. During the 2016 presidential election, aging machines contributed to scattered reports of “vote flipping” in Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.
Flipped votes occur when a voter selects one candidate but the voting machine shows a different selection. Voters are encouraged to check, and if necessary correct, votes before completing their ballot, but flipped votes can cause confusion and charges of rigging. Larry Norden of the Brennan Center says flipped votes often aren’t evidence of rigging or hacking, but age. Older machines have more fickle calibrations and the glue attaching the screen to machine wears, resulting in poor alignment.
The reason that so many voting machines are nearing their end dates simultaneously is in part due to the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Following the Florida ballot-counting controversy in the 2000 presidential election, Congress provided over $3.6 billion in funds to states and territories to upgrade election systems and improve election administration. HAVA also established minimum standards for voting systems and election administration, and created the Elections Assistance Commission to help states design systems that complied with the new law.
Proportion of HAVA funds remaining. Note: Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina., South Carolina, Vermont and Utah data as of September 2015. All other states as of September 2016. Source: U.S. Election Assistance Commission. (Kate Rabinowitz/ProPublica)
HAVA, which prompted a flurry of upgrades, was the first time the federal government provided funds to states for election systems. It was also the last.