RICHMOND — Dozens of local governments — including Fairfax City and Arlington — could be left scrambling to replace all of their voting machines after a state report called into question the accuracy and security of one-fifth of Virginia’s aging equipment.
The state Board of Elections will decide at a public hearing on April 14 whether to scrap the touch-screen voting machines used in 30 counties and cities. The board will accept public comment through April 12.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration is eager to settle the issue in time for the November election, when all General Assembly seats will be on the ballot — but also before the 2016 presidential contest.
McAuliffe (D) said he expects historic turnout in the race for the White House, for which his friend, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, is a likely contender.
“I’m not sure who’s running, but it could be historic in nature next year,” McAuliffe said with a laugh while talking to reporters Friday.
The governor recently proposed borrowing $28 million to replace machines across the state, but the idea was stricken from the state budget by a Republican-controlled legislature that was uneasy about taking on new debt and dictating what machines localities must use in elections.
“The machines are old. The calibrations are old,” McAuliffe said. “And we need new machines, so I am very disappointed. To be honest with you, I am baffled.”
The latest voting machines flap was prompted by complaints from voters who had trouble casting ballots in November. McAuliffe, who said he grappled with a malfunctioning machine at a Richmond precinct, called for an investigation into machine irregularities.
Results of testing from a federally accredited lab, Pro V&V, and the state’s information technology agency found problems with a model of touch-screen machine only used in Virginia, according to a five-page report released last week.
After studying problems in Spotsylvania, the report found the machines, which use a wireless internet connection to tally votes, are prone to crashing and are thought to be vulnerable to cyberattack.
The Department of Elections urged the Board of Elections, whose three members are appointed by the governor, to consider decertifying the machines.
Some local officials were startled by the prospect of having to buy new machines and train workers to use them before June 9 primaries.
“Even though we were planning and preparing, this is something that really threw us off guard,” said Mark J. Coakley, the registrar in Henrico County, the largest of 10 localities that use the machines and have an upcoming primary.
Elections officials in Arlington, which also has a primary, declined comment until after elected officials have a chance to discuss the issue.
In Fairfax City, which does not have an upcoming primary, General Registrar Kevin Linehan said the machines have worked well for him.
“In six years, I’ve never had one go down,” Linehan said. “I’ve never had to deploy the spares.”
Replacing the machines would cost about $100,000 in Fairfax City, and as much as $1 million in Henrico, officials said.
Edgardo Cortés, commissioner of the state Department of Elections, said he recognizes there could be far-reaching repercussions if the Board of Elections votes to decertify next week.
“I don’t blame them for their reaction,” he said of registrars. “We wouldn’t have asked the board to consider it and to take these steps if we weren’t incredibly concerned about the results of some of the testing we’ve been doing over the past weeks and months.”
The General Assembly banned local governments in 2007 from buying touch-screen machines but provided no funding or deadline for updating the equipment.
Representatives of the New Virginia Majority and Progress Virginia, two voting-rights advocacy groups, praised the state for studying voting problems.
“Obviously, immediately decommissioning these machines could be difficult and expensive for local communities,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority. “However, continuing to rely on outdated and insecure technology undermines our democracy and we must take proactive steps before a larger problem emerges.”