Votes being registered for the wrong candidate. Voting machines running out of memory. Election officials searching eBay for outdated notebook computers. These are just a few of the nightmarish scenarios state and local officials face as the country’s voting machines age and break down.
A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that the expected lifespan of core components in electronic voting machines purchased since 2000 is between 10 and 20 years, and for most systems it is probably closer to 10 than 20. Experts surveyed by the Brennan Center agree that the majority of machines in use today are either “perilously close to or exceed these estimates.”
The report found that 43 states are using some machines that will be at least 10 years old in 2016, and that in most of these states, the majority of election districts are using machines that are at least 10 years old. Further, in 14 states, some machines will be 15 years old or older.
As voting machines age, they start to fall apart, their hardware becomes obsolete and their software becomes outdated and unsupported. All of that creates a dangerous combination for state and local election officials and increases the likelihood that the machines will malfunction or not function at all on or before Election Day, experts say.
“If you have aging voting machines, eventually they are going to stop working,” says Michael Shamos, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has spent the last 35 years examining and certifying computerized voting machines for the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “And if they stop working, it becomes a crisis after a while if your reserve machines stop working as well.”
The Brennan Center report notes that after years of wear and tear, electronic voting machine parts such as motherboards, memory cards and touch screens can fail. The danger is that if this happens on Election Day, voters can be forced to wait in long lines while repairs are made, machines are replaced or election officials resort to emergency measures like paper balloting.
“Vote flipping” — when a voter selects one candidate and the machine registers the vote for another candidate — is one common issue that can occur when voting machines malfunction, says Christopher Famighetti, a voting rights researcher at the Brennan Center and a co-author of the report. Often, vote flipping is the result of alignment or calibration issues on the voting machine’s touch screen.
The report notes that the Virginia Department of Elections investigated problems with a touch-screen machine, the AccuVote TSX, which is used in some form in 20 other states. In 2014, voters in Virginia Beach experienced vote flipping as a result of an alignment problem that affected 26 Virginia Beach machines. Jack Cobb, laboratory director at Pro V&V, a federally accredited software and systems testing laboratory for regulated industries, told the Brennan Center that a coating on the edge of the touch screen “slowly degrades” the glue that holds the screen in place. As a result, the touch screen can slip out of place and register votes incorrectly.
Additionally, Famighetti says that the Brennan Center researchers spoke with election officials who were searching eBay for devices — primarily old analog modems used to transmit voting results over phone lines at speeds of kilobytes per second and Zip disks for memory storage — that support the older voting systems they used. Ken Terry, director of the Allen County, Ohio, Board of Elections, told the Brennan Center that when he ordered Zip disks for his central tabulator, the package included literature that was more than a decade old and had a coupon that expired in 1999.
Famighetti also notes that many of the machines in use are “relying on outdated and unsupported software,” such as Microsoft’s Windows XP and Windows 2000. Microsoft stopped providing security updates and technical support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014, and did the same for Windows 2000 back in July 2010.
“That means, on an operations level, that election officials have to find obsolete hardware that runs on Windows XP,” Famighetti says, adding that some local officials have stockpiled older computers to make sure they have the hardware to support older voting machines.
Security risks from vulnerable wireless networks also have experts concerned. The Brennan Center report notes that following reports of voting machines crashing during the 2014 election, the Virginia State Board of Elections enlisted experts to conduct a post-election review.
Investigators found that the Advanced Voting Solutions WINVote machine, a Wi-Fi-enabled machine that was not certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, had “serious security vulnerabilities.” In particular, investigators found that wireless cards on the voting systems could allow “an external party to access the [machine] and modify the data [on the machine] without notice from a nearby location.” They added that “an attacker could join the wireless ad-hoc network, record voting data or inject malicious [data.]”
The WINVote system dates back to the early 2000s, when Wi-Fi encryption standards were significantly weaker than they are today, the report says. The findings startled Virginia election officials and led the State Board to decertify WINVote. As a result, 30 Virginia localities needed to purchase and deploy new machines.
The main problem state and local officials face in upgrading their voting machines is a lack of funding, experts say. The Brennan Center report found that election jurisdictions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years. However, officials from 22 of these states say they do not know where they would get the money to pay for them.
Based upon recent contracts and assessments provided by election officials, the Brennan Center estimates the initial national cost of replacing equipment over the next few years could exceed $1 billion, though that could be partially offset by lower operating costs and better contracts than are currently used in many jurisdictions.
Some large municipalities are trying to get out in front of the looming crisis by designing their own voting systems. Los Angeles County in California has embarked on what it terms a “human-centered” approach. The proposed design combines touch-screen technology with a human-readable and auditable paper ballot of record. Voters would use a touch-screen ballot-marking device to fill out a ballot, print it and then place it in a ballot box.
Los Angeles County is currently working with the design consulting firm IDEO to develop the specifications for an electronic ballot marking device and associated components of a comprehensive, modernized voting system, the report notes. Next, the county will move forward with a contract to manufacture the device. On the software side, the county envisions the system relying on open-source software, which will be maintained in-house at the registrar’s office. Dean Logan, the registrar/recorder and county clerk in Los Angeles County, told the Brennan Center that he plans to begin implementing the system in 2017 and hopes to achieve a complete turnover of equipment by the 2020 election cycle.
Travis County, Texas, which encompasses the state capital of Austin, is taking a security-minded approach. The county is adopting a system it calls “STAR-Vote” – standing for secure, transparent, auditable and reliable. A voter using the STAR-Vote system will fill out an electronic ballot on an off-the-shelf tablet device running open-source software, confirm their selections on a printed paper receipt and then feed the ballot into a scanner. The system will provide the voter with a tangible receipt to confirm the machine recorded their choices correctly. Once home, voters will use their receipt to log in to a website and confirm their ballot was cast and counted.
Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization that studies voting systems, says the bottom line with election technology is “you want to be able to serve the voter. And you want something that doesn’t just give the voter a good feeling when they use it, but is robustly reliable. So at the end of the day, the voter needs to know that their votes were captured the way they intended.”
Smith says election officials need to be able to have verifiable voting data for audits and for potential recounts, and that voter participation could drop if voters feel their ballots aren’t being accurately counted. “You don’t want an election that was kind of questionable and you don’t have any way to prove it,” she says.
Further, Smith says that if everything goes smoothly on Election Day, most voters will never know the names of state or local election officials. However, she says that “if you unfortunately have a situation where things go bad and the equipment doesn’t work, the spotlight is on you. They don’t want that or need that. They want to do it right.”