States ditch electronic voting machines

States have abandoned electronic voting machines in droves, ensuring that most voters will be casting their ballots by hand on Election Day.

With many electronic voting machines more than a decade old, and states lacking the funding to repair or replace them, officials have opted to return to the pencil-and-paper voting that the new technology was supposed to replace.

ADVERTISEMENT
Nearly 70 percent of voters will be casting ballots by hand on Tuesday, according to Pamela Smith, president of election watchdog Verified Voting.

"Paper, even though it sounds kind of old school, it actually has properties that serve the elections really well," Smith said.

It’s an outcome few would have predicted after the 2000 election, when the battle over “hanging chads” in the Florida recount spurred a massive, $3 billion federal investment in electronic voting machines.

States at the time ditched punch cards and levers in favor of touch screens and ballot-scanners, with the perennial battleground state of Ohio spending $115 million alone on upgrades.

Smith said the mid-2000s might go down as the “heyday” of electronic voting.

Since then, states have failed to maintain the machines, partly due to budget shortfalls.

“There is simply no money to replace them,” said Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who has examined computerized voting systems in six states.

The lack of spending on the machines is a major problem because the electronic equipment wears out quickly. Smith recalled sitting in a meeting with Missouri election officials in 2012 where they complained 25 percent of their equipment had malfunctioned in preelection testing.

“You’re dealing with voting machines that are more than a decade old,” Smith said.

Roughly half of the states that significantly adopted electronic voting following the cash influx have started to move back toward paper.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration in January warned that the deterioration of voting machines is an “impending crisis,” but House Republicans say the issue should be left to the states.

Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who chairs the house committee that oversees federal elections and is a former Michigan secretary of State, said the cash infusion to the states in the mid-2000s was "unprecedented."

"State and local election officials should not rely on the federal government to replace voting machines that may be nearing the end of its useful life. Therefore, state and local election officials should recognize that they are responsible for upgrading their voting equipment as needed, and hopefully they are budgeting accordingly," Miller said in a statement to The Hill. 

Some voters might welcome the return to punch voting, given that researchers have repeatedly proved the fallibility of individual e-voting machines.

One group from Princeton needed only seven minutes and simple hacking tools to install a computer program on a voting machine that took votes for one candidate and gave them to another.

More whimsically, two researchers showed they could install Pac-Man onto a touch-screen voting machine, leaving no detectable traces of their presence.

But concerns of widespread tampering are overblown, Shamos said.

“It’s something you can demonstrate under lab conditions,” he said. To translate it to an election-altering hack, “you would have to commit the perfect crime.”

“There's never been a proven case of manipulation of an electronic voting machine,” he said.

Voting machines are not connected to any network and not connected to each other, making them difficult to tamper with.

“These machines are not hooked up or networked in any way that would make them vulnerable to external access,” said Matt McClellan, press secretary for the Ohio secretary of State. “We’re confident that process is secure and the integrity is being maintained.”

“There’s no mechanism whereby viruses can pass from one machine to another,” Shamos agreed. Best-case scenario, “maybe I could fool a few people” and get several hundred votes “for my guy.”

Bryan Whitener, director of communications for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, noted that all electronic voting machines are tested and certified.

Many states, like Colorado, keep their machines under video surveillance with detailed records of when software is being installed.

When Ohio made the $115 million statewide switch to e-voting, it passed a law that all voting methods, including touch screens, must also generate a paper trail.

“It’s not just solely an electronic vote,” McClellan said.

More than 60 percent of states passed similar laws with the electronic switch. Some states moved preemptively; others were reactionary.

An electronic machine in North Carolina lost roughly 4,500 votes in a 2004 statewide race after it simply stopped recording votes. The race was ultimately decided by fewer than 2,000 votes.

“Now what do you do?” Smith asked. “You can’t really do a recount. There’s nothing to count.”

Within a year, the state passed a law requiring a paper back-up.

Paper trails are simply “more resilient,” Smith said.

Shamos said he expects the move back to paper ballots to continue, unless there’s a high-profile crisis similar to the 2000 election.

Still, he predicted the drumbeat for Internet and mobile voting will grow.

“Eventually [a generation is] going to have the thought that it’s idiotic for me not to be able to vote using my cell phone,” Shamos said.

Then all bets are off.