A Voting Machine Meltdown in 2016 Is Likely, Investigation Warns

Are Americans who will vote in the next presidential election ready for Florida 2.0?


You may recall that the 2000 presidential election was decided by the Supreme Court—which stopped a recount in Florida under the twisted logic that because there were so many differences in how county officials were handling ballots that George W. Bush’s constitutional right of equal treatment under law had been violated.

That logic was supremely flawed because in the real world of elections, there is no such uniformity. The great offender of Florida was the “hanging chad,” a not-quite punched through computer card that signified how someone voted. Today, there are many modern equivalents of where voting machinery can fail—and according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School—dozens of states face prospects of Florida-like breakdowns in 2016 because of aging voting machines.

“The problem of aging and outdated voting equipment is national and widespread,” Brennan concluded in a wonky but stunning report that found most voting machines in use across America are older than the first i-phone. As Dana Chisnell, director of the Center for Civic Design and a visiting scientist at MIT noted, machines that were bought 10, 12, or 15 years ago “were designed and engineered in the 1990s.” Brennan’s experts said, “We ignore it at our collective peril. A majority of jurisdictions in 2016 will be using machines at or near the end of their projected lifespans.”

What could possibly go wrong? Well, perhaps you recently tried turning on an old PC laptop that you have in a file cabinet running on Windows XP, with a screen that’s no longer crisp, a slow-as-molasses modem, prehistoric WiFi, and security systems that businesses haven’t used for years. This is the platform that is running voting systems across America in dozens of states, Brennan reported.

“Forty-three states are using some machines that will be at least 10 years old in 2016,” it said. “In most of these states, the majority of election districts are using machines that are at least 10 years old. In 14 states, machines will be 15 or more years old.”

The problem is decrepit electronics can misrecord votes, lose votes en masse because of faulty memory, and be hacked at the tabulation stage by insiders who know it takes very little to swing close races. Brennan’s report avoids the stolen elections line, as activists focused on that issue know such talk tends to get one dismissed by the media. Instead, Brennan focuses on what’s likely to be the most widespread problem: losing votes, especially because many of these machines have no paper trail backup.       

“The biggest risk is increased failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost vote. Older machines can also have serious security and reliability flaws that are unacceptable today. For example, Virginia recently decertified a voting system used in 24 percent of precincts after finding that an external party could access the machine’s wireless features to “record voting data or inject malicious data.” Smaller problems can also shake public confidence. Several election officials mentioned “flipped votes” on touch screen machines, where a voter touches the name of one candidate, but the machine registers it as a selection for another.”

A National Problem

How big is this problem? It’s immense—infinitely larger than the GOP-led noise about voter impersonation fraud, which has led to dozens of new laws in recent years to police polling places in mostly red states. Brennan said, “The jurisdictions looking to deploy new equipment represent approximately 40 million registered voters and their states total 387 of the 538 electoral votes.”

Forty-million is a little less than one-third of the number of people who usually vote in presidential elections—where 130 million or more votes are typically cast. The solution, as Brennan, a recent presidential commission on election administration, and many top election officials know, is getting money from Congress—as happened after Florida’s 2000 debacle—to buy a new generation of voting systems. But that hasn’t happened despite years of warnings and worries by top election officials that their state could become the next Florida in 2016. Consider these comments, taken from the report:

• Last year, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, estimated that 30 of Florida’s 67 counties should replace voting equipment before the 2016 election. When speaking with the Sun-Sentinel, Detzner said, “It’s kind of one of those things that you don’t think about until something happens… We know we need to do something.”

• Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, echoed these concerns in testimony before the PCEA [Presidential Commission on Election Administration], stating that 10 years after HAVA [2002’s Help America Vote Act], “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.”

• As Bob Nichols, an election director for Jackson County, Missouri, put it to The Kansas City Star, “We’re just really concerned… going into a presidential election year with old equipment — we don’t want to be another Florida.”

Virginia is one of a handful of 2016 presidential swing states. Here’s how the Brennan report described how one system—not all counties use the same machinery—broke down in 2014. While that system has since been taken offline, that didn’t happen until after the election was over. Brennan said:

"The most recent high-profile example of the increased vulnerabilities of older machines occurred in Virginia. Following reports of machines crashing during the 2014 election, the Virginia State Board of Elections enlisted experts to conduct a post-election review. Investigators found that the WinVote, a  Wi-Fi enabled machine that was not EAC certified, had serious security vulnerabilities.

"In particular, investigators found that wireless cards on the voting systems could allow “an external party to access the [machine] and modify the data [on the machine] without notice from a nearby location.” They added that “an attacker could join the wireless ad-hoc network, record voting data or inject malicious [data.]”

"The Virginia [elections] Board also investigated problems with a different touch screen machine, the AccuVote TSX, which is used in some form in 20 other states. In 2014, voters in Virginia Beach observed that when they selected one candidate, the machine would register their selection for a different candidate. This issue, the result of an “alignment problem,” affected 26 Virginia Beach machines."

Why would a touch screen not correctly record a vote—or assign it to another candidate? Brennan quoted Jack Cobb, the laboratory director at Pro V&V—a federally accredited testing lab—who “told us that a coating on the edge of the touch screen ‘slowly degrades’ the glue that holds the screen in place. As a result, the touch screen can slip out of place, and register votes incorrectly. ‘It just so happens that there were thousands of  AccuVote TSXs produced, and some portion of these machines has this problem,’ Cobb told us.”

It is not just paperless touch screen machines. For years, jurisdictions using paper ballots that were scanned to be counted thought they had a better approach—because they had a paper trail that could be audited in recounts. Yet the report notes that aging optical-scan machines have their problems too. And other key computer parts—motherboards and memory—can also fail:

• In Oakland County, Michigan, Director of Elections Joe Rozell told the Brennan Center his optical scan units are having increasing problems as they age. “We have had motherboards go down—in essence the voting machine just stops working on Election Day because the motherboard is dead. The memory cards are going bad… this delays tabulation and makes second chance voting impossible.”

• Neal Kelley, registrar in Orange County, California, took unusual measures to maintain his decade-old voting machines. When the wiring in his direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines started to fail, Kelley replaced “cable connections” in 11,000 machines with military grade hardware. When speaking with USA Today in 2014, Kelley stated, “If we did nothing to continue ongoing maintenance with the system, realistically, we shouldn’t be fielding it in the 2016 cycle.” The USA Today article also noted that the county was purchasing voting machines to “cannibalize for extra parts,” which Kelley remarked “can probably extend our life cycle to 2018.”

• Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the county clerk in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, [Albequerque] told us how scanners her county purchased in 2006 saw increasing problems as they reached the seven-year mark. “As the machines got older, they had more and more functionality issues. In particular there was a high failure rate for memory cards. It got so bad that we had to replace one-third of machines in every election.”

• Mark Earley, voting systems manager in Leon County, Florida, [Tallahassee] told us his old voting system used an analog modem that he could only find on eBay. “The biggest problem was finding modems for our old machines. I had to buy a modem model called the Zoom Pocket Modem on eBay because they weren’t available elsewhere.” Earley told us that the Zoom Pocket Modem can transmit data at just kilobytes per second, making it utterly obsolete by today’s standards.

The Brennan Center estimated it could cost more than $1 billion to replace all the voting machines that should be replaced in the next few years, although some experts told them that could be below the actual cost because these systems also include electronic poll books and would need to be compatible with state voter registration systems. 

New Voting Machinery

There have been a number of counties across the country that have been developing their own solutions without waiting for funds from their state capitals or Congress. The biggest voting jurisdiction in the country, Los Angeles County, and Travis County, Texas, are now developing new systems that use a mix of more modern hardware and software.

However, no expert believes that the Internet can be used to preserve secret balloting and protect against hacking or vote-count fraud. Unlike online banking, where people have unique identifiers to log in, Americans want to keep their votes secret and private. That secrecy generates too many security risks for online voting. (Online voter registration is different, since that process verifies one’s identifying information in state databases).

Brennan said many election officials “would like to use systems that employ commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware—such as an iPad or Android tablet—as a ‘digital ballot-marking device.’ Voters could combine these touch screen products with COTS printers that produce a paper ballot for the voter to review. The voter could then submit this ‘paper ballot’ into a scanner, which both tabulates ballots and stores an image of the ballot.”

Another idea is “pre-voting,” Brennan said. There “a voter could download an application on their phone and pre-mark a ballot. The voter would then bring their phone to the polling place and transfer the pre-marked ballot to the voting tablet. Conceivably, voters could transfer pre-marked ballots by scanning a quick response (QR) code, much like an airline e-ticket. Security experts caution that before implementing such technology, election officials must make sure proper security measures are in place.”

While election officials are keenly aware of the problem with their machinery and what solutions could be, there is no apparent political will in Congress to recognize that this is a real crisis waiting to surface. In the meanwhile, Brennan’s report advises local election officials to take as many precautions as possible—test and repair gear before big voter turnout elections in 2016—and train poll workers in what can go wrong and the fixes.   

“Purchasing and deploying new voting systems takes time,” their report concludes. “It should be done methodically, with proper planning, including strategies to support new systems during their lifetimes. As long as election officials are unsure whether they can afford to buy new systems and support them over the long haul, that process is delayed, and the risk of Election Day failures increases.”

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