The looming crisis of obsolescence and failure of voting technology

There has been little reporting on this issue, but Arizona’s election equipment is breaking down and becoming obsolete. It has not been replaced. It is one reason for going to voting areas instead of precinct polling locations, as election directors cannibalize election equipment to make do with what they have. Vote-by-mail has also reduced the demand for precinct election equipment.

AccuvoteOSEven if Arizona wanted to spend money on new election equipment, and the legislature does not, there are few vendors remaining to supply modern, secure equipment. The competitive bid process typically produces no more than one bidder.

Worse, I have been informed by members of the Pima County Election Integrity Commission that the computer program to tally votes still runs a Windows program  for which Microsoft no longer provides support (presenting a security risk, and risk of systemwide failure). Ballots may no longer be scanned at polling locations, so there will be no precinct tally, but simply dropped in a sealed ballot box to be scanned later at central tabulating. See report of PIMA COUNTY ELECTION INTEGRITY COMMISSION (May 9, 2014) (.pdf).

It is not just a problem here in Arizona. Governing reports The Looming Crisis in Voting Technology: The nation’s voting equipment is quickly becoming obsolete. But even if local governments could afford upgrades, no new machines exist to buy:

More and more often these days, Neal Kelley and his staff find themselves rooting through shelves at used computer stores in Orange County, Calif., looking for something they can’t find anywhere else: laptops that run on Windows 2000. Kelley is the registrar of voters in Orange County, and one component of his election equipment still runs on the Microsoft operating system from 14 years ago.

As in most places around the country, Orange County’s voting technology is based on federal standards set after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002.

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With HAVA, Congress encouraged local governments to install electronic voting equipment, resulting in a wave of upgrades across the country. Between 2002 and 2004, Congress allocated more than $3 billion for some 8,000 local jurisdictions to replace the punch card devices and lever machines they had been using for more than 30 years. But today, a decade later, that upgraded election infrastructure is quickly becoming obsolete.

In a worst-case scenario, current equipment will start to fail in the next couple years, forcing fewer voting booths to process more ballots, a recipe for longer lines and voter frustration. “What you don’t want is disenfranchised voters who are deciding not to cast a ballot because of these issues,” says Kelley. “We can’t let ourselves get to that point. We need to be ahead of this curve.”

It’s an impending crisis for states and localities. “Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines,” the Presidential Commission on Election Administration reported in January, “and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had the funds.” In other words, the newer technology simply isn’t there. And even if it were, localities couldn’t afford it.

Although HAVA ushered in significant improvements — along with federal funding to make them a reality — much of the election machinery was never intended to last more than a decade. Now the cost of installing modern equipment is discouraging many localities from addressing the issue. Meanwhile, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission hasn’t updated its standards for voting technology since 2005, making vendors skittish about modernizing their products too much without knowing how regulations might change. Even if the regulations were clearer, manufacturers would have to deal with an expensive process for getting new products tested and certified, estimated to cost more than $1 million per voting machine.

So far, election officials have tried to avoid expensive replacements by extending the life of the equipment with simple process-related changes. Letting citizens vote by mail, for example, reduces the number of people coming to polling booths, placing less strain on the plastic feeder motors that pump out print copies of each completed electronic ballot. Nonetheless, jurisdictions across the country will have to take broader action within the next few years if they want to avoid catastrophe.

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Some localities want to develop their own upgraded voting tech, rather than rely on what’s available on the market. Travis County, Texas, for instance, has decided to eschew the handful of private companies that usually supply election equipment to local government. Instead, says Dana DeBeauvoir, who oversees elections in the county, Travis will ask for bids to create an entirely new system. “What’s on the marketplace isn’t very good and it’s horrifically expensive,” she says. In general, vendors sell proprietary hardware that is complex and not interchangeable. DeBeauvoir’s main gripe is that even the newest products don’t include modern security features, such as allowing voters to review printouts before ballots are cast. If successful, her election system would rely on open-source software that could be shared, at little cost or no cost, with other jurisdictions.

A similar experiment is under way in Los Angeles County, where the county clerk is trying to design a system that can accommodate 11 different languages and more than 4 million registered voters. While election officials across the country see both efforts as groundbreaking, they say neither will serve as a solution for the immediate problem of failing machinery. “You’re talking about something that’d be untested,” Kelley says. “There’s just not going to be enough time to adapt to what Travis County and Los Angeles do.”

Besides, most jurisdictions probably won’t want dramatic upgrades in technology. They just need machinery that isn’t at risk of a systemwide failure . . . Lori Edwards, supervisor of elections in Polk County, Fla. says “It just needs to be safe, secure and reliable.”

Just getting to that point, however, could cost billions nationwide over the next few years. “We have a big national problem,” says DeBeauvoir. “And it’s going to be front and center in everybody’s jurisdiction pretty soon.”

 In 2006, Arizona voters rejected by more than 2-1 Prop 205, the “Your Right to Vote by Mail Act” proposing a requirement that a mail-in ballot be distributed to every registered voter and all elections be conducted via mail. Since that time, however, early voting by mail-in ballot or early voting sites accounts for just under 70% of all ballots cast in Arizona.

The states of Oregon (1998), Washington (2011) and most recently Colorado (2013) have adopted postal voting (universal vote-by-mail). Given the exorbitant cost of new election equipment, the cost of obtaining ADA-compliant polling locations, and the cost of training poll workers, it only makes economic sense for Arizona to adopt postal voting.

Given the state of disrepair and obsolescence of our election equipment, this should be an issue in the Secretary of State race and legislative races. This problem is going to have to addressed by the legislature in the next session.

3 responses to “The looming crisis of obsolescence and failure of voting technology

  1. captain*arizona

    uncle joe stalin said it best I don’t care who votes just who counts the votes. And where are arizona paid democratic officials? Oh their to busy fund raising so their pay checks don’t bounce! What does the arizona democratic party look for in a chairman(they can raise more money then chairwoman) someone to outreach to states hispanics(the partys future) NO! Someone who can get rich old white conservative democrats to donate so the paychecks doesn’t bounce YES! ask terry goddard how playing to the few pro 1070 democrats instead of our latino brothers and sisters what that got him in the 2010 governors race!

  2. dwight d leister

    I agree :f. ann rodriguez must resign!

  3. Crackerhead

    I knew there were problems with the equipment, but I had no idea how bad it is. It is no wonder there are so many charges – whether justified or not – of fraud and corruption. For many years I have voted by mail. I fill out the ballot, drop it in the mail, and then pray it gets to right place and my vote is counted. I can’t say I have 100% confidence that is what happens, through.