AMERICANS TEND to replace their smartphones every two or three years. By contrast, most Americans use voting machines that are at least a decade old and based on engineering and designs from the 1990s. The perils of ignoring the latter may not be apparent until the electoral system is suddenly wracked by mishaps — think of Florida, circa 2000. Unfortunately, the likelihood of major dysfunction grows as voting machines age.
It’s fair to blame Washington for a portion of the mess and assume it won’t play a critical role in the solution. Determined to avoid a reprise of the Florida mishap, Congress allocated funds and mandated the purchase of new equipment in 2002. Then, with the mandates still in place, lawmakers turned off the funding spigot, leaving state and local governments to take up the slack.
In next year’s presidential election, some voting machines in 43 states will be at least a decade old and dangerously close to the end of their expected lifespan, according to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice. In 14 states, some voters will encounter machines that are 15 or more years old, meaning they pre-date Facebook and the widespread use of flat-screen televisions.
The risk in antiquated technology is Election Day chaos at polling places and lost or inaccurately recorded votes. There are also serious security concerns. Virginia officials recently decertified a voting system used in a quarter of the state’s 2,370 precincts after discovering the machines could be hacked to record votes or insert malware.
Just a half-dozen or so states, including Maryland, have up-to-date equipment. In most others, including Virginia, many local jurisdictions are winging it with obsolete voting machines.
Last year, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) offered a $28 million plan to help replace aging voting machines. Complacent lawmakers stripped the funding from the budget, and the speaker of the state’s House of Delegates, William J. Howell (R-Stafford), said upgrading voting equipment was a local problem.
Given concerns over identity theft and cyberattacks, Internet voting remains a dream for the future. Until that day arrives, local governments have to make do with scarce resources. That doesn’t mean they should sit on their hands. As the Brennan Center report suggests, there are steps they can take to start modernizing systems on the cheap. One idea is to incorporate relatively inexpensive hardware such as tablet computers, which can be purchased at just a tenth the price of modern voting machines. Local elections officials would also be wise to prepare contingency plans and update poll worker training to prepare for Election Day meltdowns and to ensure that paper ballots are on hand in case of an emergency.
They should also devise plans for replacing aging machines and seeing to it that there is a long-term strategy to support the new technology. At some point in the not-distant future, there is an excellent chance that electoral disasters will shake loose funding for upgrades; when that happens, local officials should be ready to move.