The chaos that unfolded with the 2000 presidential election transformed election administration in the United States. Most jurisdictions used federal money to purchase new voting machines, and guidelines were created to make the voting process more reliable.
But that was almost 16 years ago. Technology has advanced, and the machines purchased at that time continue to age. State and local governments across the country are trying to figure out how to get new equipment with little money.
Most jurisdictions bought new voting equipment between 2004 and 2006, and most of them are still using the same equipment, said Christy McCormick, a commissioner with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, or EAC.
“A lot of those systems are coming to the end of their natural life cycle,” McCormick said. “In addition, the advances in technology have been so great over the past 10 years that a lot of that technology is old and outdated, and it’s hard to find parts and pieces for the systems.”
Election Mess Spurs Change
The 2000 election that pit George W. Bush against then-Vice President Al Gore depended on Florida, where the outcome was too close to call. The situation was complicated by lawsuits, demands for recounts and confusing punch-card ballots.
The country cried for election reform and new voting machines. Some of the technology used during the 2000 presidential election had been used since the 1960s or 1970s, McCormick said.
In 2002, Bush signed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA. In addition to creating the EAC, which was charged with creating voting system guidelines, HAVA addressed voting technology and voter access issues. HAVA provided funding to help states replace voting machines, especially punch-card and lever machines.
“It was pretty comprehensive on different issues that Congress wanted to address regarding voting technology in the states, and included a huge tranche of money—almost $3 billion—for election administration, and most of that was for new voting technology,” McCormick said.
Now states have little, if any, of that money left.
After a Decade, Change Needed Again
In 2016, jurisdictions in 43 states use voting machines that are at least 10 years old, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice titled “America’s Voting Machines at Risk.” Jurisdictions in 14 states have machines that are at least 15 years old.
Election jurisdictions in 31 states want to purchase new voting machines over the next five years, the report said. However, election officials in 22 of the 31 states said they didn’t know how the funding for the machines would be obtained.
“After years of wear and tear, machine parts like motherboards, memory cards, and touch screens can fail,” the report said. “When this happens on Election Day, voters can be forced to wait in line while repairs are made or machines replaced.”
It could cost the country more than $1 billion to replace equipment over the next few years, according to Brennan Center estimates.
Various solutions have cropped up across the country where voting technology not only differs from state to state but also from county to county in any given state.
“Some states have all one system and some states allow the jurisdictions to choose what they want to purchase,” McCormick said. “So, it’s kind of all over the place. It’s really a patchwork of systems throughout the country.”
States Search for Solutions
Use of commercial off-the-shelf, often referred to as COTS, technology has become popular in some jurisdictions. Voting systems have traditionally been contained to stand alone, all-in-one units. But now some systems are beginning to utilize technology such as tablets and printers.
“It’s a trend that’s starting for a number of reasons,” McCormick said.
Items such as tablets and printers are easy to find and easy to replace. They also can be used in other capacities when not being used in elections.
The EAC is currently working on new voting system guidelines, and commercial off-the-shelf technology is one area being considered. McCormick said the new guidelines, which will include new technology certifications, should be available in the next couple of years.
Utah state Rep. Brad Daw, a software engineer, sponsored a bill earlier this year that would have created a selection committee to recommend new voting equipment for the state. Daw wanted to replace the current electronic, touchscreen technology with a system that uses hand-marked paper ballots and scanning machines.
“They’re very low cost, and they’re reliable, auditable,” he said.
Under the legislation, the state would not force counties to use the voting system selected by the committee, but it would offer financial support to counties that decided to implement the new system. Daw said the bill had wide support but did not get through the state’s short legislative session.
According to Daw, the current voting machines “are good for another year, another election cycle,” and he hoped there would be time to revisit the issue next year.
In March, Utah Republicans cast votes in the state’s presidential caucus online. Media outlets called it the largest online election in history. Asked if online voting could be a viable, affordable option for states, Daw pointed to unavoidable risks.
“Either you have to sacrifice some level of anonymity, or you have to be open to the possibility of having your system hacked and somebody casting fraudulent votes—one of the two,” he said. “In other words, in online voting, you have to give up something in order to make it work. And, as far as I can tell, no one has figured out a way around that.”
Mail-in voting also has become a trend across the states.
“We’re seeing an uptick in absentee ballots and also early voting has been extremely popular this year,” McCormick said.
Three states—Colorado, Oregon and Washington—conduct elections either solely or primarily by mail. Proponents of mail-in voting say it is more accessible, especially for voters with disabilities.
Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams said his state has “a very robust initiative and referendum process” and voters like to study the complex ballot issues.
“It’s easier for them to do that if they have the ballot sitting in front of them where they can research it on the internet or the newspaper or whatever source they may want to use,” Williams said. “When you walk into a polling place, you obviously don’t have those opportunities to study each ballot issue in that type of fashion.”
Williams said 95 percent of voters returned a mailed ballot in the state’s last election. The other five percent visited polling places, which open for about two-and-a-half weeks during a general election.
However, of the 95 percent that used a mailed ballot, most of the voters dropped off the ballot as opposed to returning it by mail.
In addition to mail-in voting, Colorado encourages jurisdictions to use specific voting technology for ballot creation and ballot scanning by offering to help pay for the technology using the state’s remaining HAVA funds. Some counties in the state had machines that were out-of-date or that election officials “didn’t have confidence in,” Williams said.
“Some are using scanning and tabulation software that relies on Windows operating systems no longer supported by Microsoft,” he said.
In the past, voters have reported feeling that old touchscreens were out of calibration. Williams added that there are many other reasons why counties need to update equipment. But even with money from the state, there is a cost to counties, where finding money for areas such as parks and sheriff departments is also essential.
“I was a county commissioner for eight years,” Williams said. “I understand those challenges, but I think the integrity of the elections process is worth spending some money on.”
CSG Working Group Reviews Voting Technology
A working group that is part of The Council of State Governments’ Overseas Voting Initiative, or OVI, met in the spring to discuss technology that could improve voting for U.S. military and civilians overseas. The CSG OVI’s Technology Working Group plans to unveil best practices and recommendations for states during the 2016 CSG National Conference in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., Dec. 8–11.
One election administration tool being discussed by a subgroup of the OVI Technology Working Group is automated ballot duplication. Ballots returned by U.S. military and civilian voters residing overseas through the mail or by email must be duplicated before they are tallied and counted. Damaged absentee ballots often must be duplicated before county elections officials can count the ballots. The group is looking at technology to help election officials avoid manual reproduction of ballots.
The CSG group is analyzing, researching and recommending improvements to the technology to help improve the number of overseas ballots that are counted in U.S. elections, but the results could have a much broader impact.
“The tools and technology that they are researching and trying to improve for states can also be used for stateside voting,” said Kamanzi Kalisa, CSG director of the Overseas Voting Initiative.
In 2015, the CSG OVI Policy Working Group released recommendations based on extensive research of voter communication and online voter registration for military and overseas voters.
The Overseas Voting Initiative was formed through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program.