File Photo: A ballot is filled using an electronic voting machine November 6, 2012 in Portage, Ohio.
J.D. Pooley/Getty Images, File

Ringing the alarm over voting-machine troubles

For those involved in voting rights, concerns about voting machines are hardly new. But a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice rings the alarm in new and noteworthy ways. MSNBC’s Zack Roth reported yesterday:
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.
When the subject of voting machines comes up, we generally hear concerns about hacking and the possibility of rigging the technology deliberately to dictate the outcome of elections.
 
Whether you take those threats seriously or not, the Brennan Center’s research points to a different kind of systemic problem: a 21st-century democracy using outdated and unreliable election technology in ways that may lead to a disaster.
 
Consider this excerpt from the report:
As systems age, the commercially produced parts that support them, like memory storage devices, printer ribbons, and modems for transmitting election results, go out of production. Several election officials told us they have used eBay to find these parts. Mark Earley, voting systems manager in Leon County, Florida, told us his old voting system used an analog modem that he could only find on eBay. “The biggest problem was finding modems for our old machines. I had to buy a modem model called the Zoom Pocket Modem on eBay because they weren’t available elsewhere.” Earley told us that the Zoom Pocket Modem can transmit data at just kilobytes per second, making it utterly obsolete by today’s standards.
 
Ken Terry, from Allen County, Ohio, told us that he feels like he is living in a technological time warp. When he ordered “Zip Disks” for his central tabulator, the package included literature that was more than a decade old. “When we purchased new Zip Disks in 2012, they had a coupon in the package that expired in 1999.”
Remember, we’re supposed to be a global superpower, home to a vibrant democracy that serves a beacon of hope to people around the globe.
 
Of course, if these out-of-date machines are so common, why don’t states simply replace them? Because as MSNBC’s report explained, municipalities simply don’t have the money to buy new ones.
 
“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.
 
This problem won’t simply go away. If policymakers invested half as much energy in election technology as they do in voter-suppression tactics, the electoral system would be vastly better off.
 
 

Voting Reform and Voting Rights

Ringing the alarm over voting-machine troubles