Problem at the polls: Tech stuck in past

In the world of iPads, Google Glass and even bitcoin, voting technology remains stuck in a virtual dark age.

Nearly 14 years after the 2000 election recount debacle in Florida, election officials now face the challenge of replacing voting machines that are on their last legs in a rapidly changing tech world that’s moved even beyond the changes spurred by that voting mess.

ADVERTISEMENT
Transitioning to modern voting machines, however, won’t be easy due to a lack of advanced machines, small budgets and a burdensome regulatory process.

The next frontier to replace aging and unreliable machines should be commercially made and software-only products, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration said in a January report.

“Tablet computers such as iPads are common components of these new technologies. They can be integrated into the check-in, voting and verification processes in the polling place,” the report said. 

President Obama formed the 10-member commission to help streamline future elections in the wake of long waits at polls in 2012.
Calling the state of voting technology an “impending crisis,” the commission urged jurisdictions to begin exploring new equipment to prepare for elections over the next decade.

Most existing voting machines were purchased in the mid-2000s, after Congress appropriated $3.9 billion to states in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002.

Florida’s notorious “hanging chads” helped inspire the legislation after many voters failed to punch their ballots precisely, sparking debate over voting systems and procedures across the country.

But more than a decade later, HAVA funding for states has largely dried up, and Obama’s commission warns jurisdictions will need to independently purchase new voting equipment, unless the federal government steps in again. 

“Without a comparable infusion of federal funds, jurisdictions will be on their own to replace aging machines or to alter the voting process so as to serve more voters with fewer machines,” the report said. 

Punch cards and lever machines were largely eliminated after HAVA, and were replaced by optical scanners and direct-recording electronics (DREs).

Votes are counted on optical scanners after voters’ paper ballots are fed through them. Votes are tallied directly on DREs, which are touch-screen machines.

Some DREs don’t produce paper ballots, which states need if audits are required after the election. In 2012, 16 states used machines in some or all of their counties that didn’t have the capability to produce paper ballots to verify votes. Regardless of the type of machine used, about 25 states didn’t conduct any vote tabulation audits after their elections. 

Between the two machines, most election officials agree optical scanners are more reliable because they don’t experience malfunctions as often, and they can’t be hacked into like a DRE.

But Obama’s election commission said none of the available machines reflect what election officials and voters want.

“I hear from a lot of folks in the field,” David Becker, director of Pew’s Election Initiatives, told The Hill. “A system that uses a variety of off-the-shelf components—a tablet device, a printer, probably an optical scanner to read the paper ballot that gets printed — is going to be the wave of the future.”

Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University, has been researching this next-generation vision as a faculty member for the Voting Technology Project.

Ansolabehere said if tablets and more electronics are incorporated into voting, security issues, such as hacking vulnerabilities, must first be addressed.

“We really need to solve the electronic voting conundrum, the security problem, to move forward,” he told The Hill. “Once it’s solved, it’ll be huge. It’ll transform the industry.”

In order to also to make that transition, federal and state standards need to be updated to reflect technology that has emerged since 2005.

That year, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) adopted a set of guidelines it uses to certify vendors’ voting machines. States are not required to go through a voluntary federal certification.

The EAC’s 2005 guidelines are a turnoff for vendors, though, because they don’t provide an incentive to modernize their products.

To make matters worse, standards can only be updated with a full quorum of commissioners — it hasn’t had a full quorum since 2010 and not a single commissioner since December 2011.

Ansolabehere said the lack of updated standards has impeded competition in the market, too. Voting systems vendor Elections Systems & Software (ES&S) operates a large share of the market.

“One of the challenges is to get more innovation into the market, get more firms competing. That’s where the standards have become a problem,” he said.

Officials in Los Angeles County and Travis County, Texas, are not letting the federal bureaucracy stand in their way: They’re both designing their own sets of voting machines.

Their products will likely entail an electronic machine that will produce a marked paper ballot.

The project was proposed because Los Angeles didn’t move at the same pace as the rest of the country in eliminating punch cards, Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan told The Hill. Los Angeles still uses them, but voters don’t punch the ballots. They are fed through inking devices that record the votes.

“Our current system is at the end of its life cycle,” Logan said, adding it was only intended to be temporary. The core design is from 1968 and has been modified several times.

After conducting research, surveying voters and holding focus groups, Logan and a team at innovation firm IDEO designed the county’s future voting machine. Los Angeles is now negotiating a contract to refine the nonworking prototype into a functional one.

Voters will use a touch-screen machine to mark their choices, which then produces a paper ballot that’s fed into a separate machine to tally the votes.

“It’s starting to take shape and be more tangible. It’s pretty exciting,” Logan said. “We expect to spend the better part of the next year in that phase and go into a manufacturing stage probably between 2015 and 2016, and to implement the new voting system probably in the off-cycle in the 2017 time-frame.”

On the touch-screen interface, voters will likely be able to change the size of the text, verify their choices and change their minds, among other features.

Logan said he wouldn’t know for a while how much the entire project will cost, but he anticipates it will be “pretty cost-effective.”

Studying the voter experience, he said, is something people failed to do after the 2000 election and HAVA implementation.

“There was this rush to market a product or series of products that weren’t fully ready for primetime,” Logan said. “Money was spent to purchase equipment, but there was less money spent on the development side in terms of doing user testing and reaching out to voters.”

The Verified Voting Foundation is another group that has been tracking states’ voting technology and its effect on election turnout.
Its president, Pamela Smith, attended a conference in early 2012, where one experienced Midwest election official told her about equipment breaking down in her area.

“She said in her pre-primary testing, 25 percent of equipment wasn’t working at all. My jaw just hit the table,” she told The Hill.

Now, Smith fears the midterm elections this November could mirror the breakdown of machines from two years ago.

“There’s probably more equipment that may have broken down in the interim,” she said. “The only other thing that’s going to help is that it is a big two-year election, but it’s not the four-year, so there may be slightly lower turnout.”

Read more from The Hill:

Clock ticking on fix to Voting Rights Act

Parties vie for high ground on November get-out-the-vote efforts

Opponents of voter ID laws see time to fight slipping away