The coming voting machine crisis

To promote democracy around the world, the United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually in developing nations. But when it comes to the mechanics of democracy itself in the United States, some don’t even want to pony up $9.6 million.

That’s the budget for the obscure, 25-employee Election Assistance Commission (EAC). Created by Congress in 2002, the bipartisan EAC is meant to be a resource for states and localities on election administration. That means everything from designing ballots, to procedures and manuals on election administration, to maintaining voting machines. And lest anyone believe that this is the big hand of the federal government reaching down to something controlled by states and counties, all the EAC does is set guidelines and advise. It does not enforce laws.

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In fact, the EAC’s role is critically important right now. In the same legislation that created the EAC, Congress appropriated $2 billion to the states to upgrade their voting machines. Virtually all of them did so. It was a necessary step after the 2000 election debacle. Failing punch cards and lever machines were replaced with newer systems that were more accurate, and that had the added benefit of allowing millions of voters with disabilities to vote privately and independently for the first time.

The problem is these machines are reaching (or have reached) the end of their lifespan. Unlike the mechanical lever machines of years ago, today’s machines were not intended to last decades. No one expects a laptop computer to last 10 years. It’s no different with an electronic voting machine.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration identified this problem last year when it warned there is an “impending crisis … from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago.” In testimony before the Commission, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted, “The next time we go to the polls to elect a president, these machines will be 12 years old. That's a lifetime when it comes to technology.”

Simply put, old voting equipment is expensive to maintain and is more prone to failures. That can mean machine freezes, shut downs, and in the worst cases, erroneous vote tallies. And the problem is national in scope. Forty-three states are using some machines that are at least 10 years old. In most of these states the majority of election districts are using machines 10 years old or more, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. Problems are already beginning to show. As a result of problems in the 2014 election, Virginia recently decertified a voting system used in 24 percent of the state’s precincts after finding that an external party could access the machine’s wireless features to “record voting data or inject malicious data[.]” What this creates is not just an exceeding concern about correctly capturing and recording of voters votes…it also can lead to a crisis of confidence in the entire democracy process.

Election officials in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years, according to the Brennan Center. The total cost could exceed $1 billion.

Which is where the EAC comes in. The EAC sets testing and certification guidelines for voting machines. With so many states and localities looking to purchase new machines, the EAC will play a pivotal role in providing guidelines for new machines —  for how they should be tested, used, and maintained.

The last 10 years have seen a sea-change in computer technology and our understanding of what voting machines might be able to do. It’s hard to believe, but iPads didn’t exist before 2010, and iPhones only came to market in 2007. Imagine how quickly technology may change in the next 10 years.

We need a federal agency with a national perspective and expertise that can help assist local election officials — who often struggle with almost no budget or staff — through such changes. Many officials, including one of us, asked Congress to create the EAC to help continuously improve democracy. We believe it would be foolish to give it so little money that it can’t do even the basic function of assuring quality voting equipment for use in elections.

Local and state officials tell us that budget authorities are not providing the funds to replace machines even though we are at the crisis stage for some of the equipment. The EAC can make sure local officials are aware of best practices for extending the life of voting machines and ensure that jurisdictions are aware of the biggest potential problems for each system. Most important, the EAC can act as a clearinghouse for information about machine problems and possible fixes. As it now stands, one county may be having a problem with a machine and a county in another state may be having the identical problem with the same machine, but the second county might never know it. The EAC can provide critical information to election officials about how to cure problems.

American democracy is unique. Responsibility for elections is in the hands of local officials in approximately 8,000 different jurisdictions. Americans vote more frequently for more offices and on more issues than anyone else. As the world’s leading democracy, American voters deserve a voting system that is functional and fair. If we want citizens to believe in government, we owe it to them to provide functional elections. 

While some continue to call for scrapping the EAC, in the context of the federal budget, it certainly seems worth it to spend less than $10 million to ensure the infrastructure of democracy is in working order. At the current budget level we are spending less than seven cents per voter for the 133 million Americans who voted in 2012. Shouldn’t American democracy be worth more than that? Shouldn’t it be worth at least as much as we spend on other democracies around the world?

Suleman is an election consultant and previously served as the head of election offices in Ohio, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Lewis was the executive director of the Election Center from 1994 to 2015.

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