Sample ballots from digital voting machines are taped to a window during the presidential primary election on April 3, 2012 in Potomac, Maryland. 
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Aging voting machines could cause election meltdown, report warns

America’s voting machines are reaching the end of their lifespans, and many states appear unwilling to spend the money to replace them, a detailed new report warns. The impasse raises the threat of a catastrophic meltdown in next year’s presidential election.

The report, released Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice, paints an alarming picture. Experts say today’s machines have an expected lifespan of 10 to 20 years—closer to 10. But in most states, a majority of jurisdictions have at least some machines that were bought in 2006 or earlier, while in 11 states—including presidential battlegrounds like Nevada and New Hampshire—every jurisdiction uses such machines. Fourteen states will use some machines that were bought over 15 years ago.

Election officials are increasingly sounding the alarm. “We’re just really concerned,” one county election official in Missouri told the Kansas City Star recently. “Going into a presidential election year with old equipment – we don’t want to be another Florida.”

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Vastly adding to the problem is that many counties in desperate need of new machines don’t have the money to buy them, and state legislatures, not seeing the urgency of the issue, don’t look likely to give it to them. Election officials in 22 states told the report’s authors they do not know how they’ll afford new machines that they need.

“We heard from more than one election official that what they’re hearing [from state legislatures] is basically, come back to me when there’s a real problem. In other words, come back to me after the catastrophe,” said Lawrence Norden, the deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, and the report’s lead author.  

“We don’t ask the fire department to wait until the truck breaks down before they can ask for a new vehicle,” Edgardo Cortes, Virginia’s director of elections, told the report’s authors.

“We really are starting to see a kind of two-tier system of elections in the United States.”
Lawrence Norden, Brennan Center
Even worse, counties with fewer resources—by and large, smaller and poorer counties—are less likely to have bought new voting equipment, meaning voters in those counties are much more likely to experience problems than voters in richer counties. In Virginia, counties that have bought new machines have a median annual income of $70,000, while for counties that haven’t, the figure is $50,000. Ohio and North Carolina have similar splits.

That’s creating yet another way—in addition to restrictive laws like voter ID instituted by some states—in which wealthier Americans have easier access to the polls than those who are struggling. “We really are starting to see a kind of two-tier system of elections in the United States,” said Norden.

Already, the report notes, we’ve seen problems in recent elections as the machines age. In 2014, voters in Virginia Beach saw their votes for one candidate magically show up as votes for a different one. The culprit was a coating of glue that holds the touch screen in place, which had begun to degrade over the years, causing the screen to slip out of place. In 2012, reports of a similar problem in Pennsylvania, in which votes for President Obama were given to Mitt Romney, went viral online. The result of such snafus is not only lost public confidence in the election, but long delays at polling places, potentially making it harder for some voters to cast a ballot.

Asked which state might be likeliest to experience a Florida 2000-style meltdown on election night next year, Norden declined to answer directly. But he noted that over 90% of counties in Ohio—perhaps the nation’s most pivotal swing state—will be using machines next year that are at least ten years old.

Nor does the Buckeye State look likely to make any improvements. As of September 2013, it had just $3.6 million remaining of the federal funds given to states under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, according to the report. The federal law was a response to the Florida fiasco in 2000, when problems with voting machines (remember those hanging chads?) left the result of the presidential election in doubt for weeks. And thanks to budget cuts undertaken by the state’s Republican legislature, the staff of the Ohio Secretary of State’s office has been reduced by over 20%.

“The problem is money,” the director of elections for one Ohio county told the report’s authors. “Until we figure out how to pay for new machines, the problem will always be money.”

Virginia, another pivotal swing state, is in a similar position. In December 2014, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, flanked by Republican Rep. Scott Rigell, proposed spending $28 million on new voting machines. But the state’s Republican legislature stripped the funding out of the budget. An aide to William Howell, the Speaker of the House of Delegates, told a local paper that paying for new machines was “a local priority.”

“The truth of the matter is, when you have a really close election and it comes down to one or two states, these kinds of problems are suddenly magnified greatly,” said Norden. “And it would be naïve to think, after getting a taste of this in 2012 and 2014, that we’re not going to see more of this now that the machines are two and four years older.”

Ohio, Virginia and Voting Rights

Aging voting machines could cause election meltdown, report warns