Technology has changed dramatically in the last decade, but America’s voting machines are rapidly aging out. In 2016, for example, 43 states will use electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old, perilously close to the end of most systems’ expected lifespan. Old voting equipment increases the risk of failures and crashes — which can lead to long lines and lost votes on Election Day — and problems only get worse the longer we wait.
Based on 10 months of independent research, and interviews with more than 100 election officials and specialists in all 50 states, this comprehensive study looks at the challenges associated with outdated equipment and the new technologies that can help solve the impending crisis.
In January 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) issued a stern warning that should be of grave concern to all Americans: There is an “impending crisis … from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago. … Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines, and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had funds.”
This report, nearly two years later, documents in detail the extent of the problem and the steps we must take in the coming years to address it. Over the past 10 months, the Brennan Center surveyed more than 100 specialists familiar with voting technology, including voting machine vendors, independent technology experts, and election officials in all 50 states. In addition, we reviewed scores of public documents to quantify in greater detail the extent of the crisis. We explore the current challenge in three parts: (1) the danger, looking at the age of machines around the country relative to their expected lifespans and the problems that we can expect; (2) the new technologies that can help solve the problem going forward; and (3) recommended solutions to the impending crisis.
Among our key findings:
- Unlike voting machines used in past eras, today’s systems were not designed to last for decades. In part this is due to the pace of technological change. No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. And although today’s machines debuted at the beginning of this century, many were designed and engineered in the 1990s.
- While it is impossible to say how long any particular machine will last, experts agree that for those purchased since 2000, the expected lifespan for the core components of electronic voting machines is between 10 and 20 years, and for most systems it is probably closer to 10 than 20.
- The majority of machines in use today are either perilously close to or exceed these estimates. Forty-three states are using some machines that will be at least 10 years old in 2016. 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.
- Nearly every state is using some machines that are no longer manufactured and many election officials struggle to find replacement parts.
- The longer we delay purchasing new equipment, the more problems we risk.
- The biggest risk is increased failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost votes.
- 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.
- Election officials who believe they need to buy new machines do not have sufficient resources.
- Election jurisdictions in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the next five years. Officials from 22 of these states said they did not know where they would get the money to pay for them.
- Based upon recent contracts and assessments provided by election officials, the Brennan Center estimates the initial national cost of replacing equipment over the next few years could exceed $1 billion, though that could be partially offset by lower operating costs and better contracts than are currently used in many jurisdictions.
- As election jurisdictions diverge in how they respond to the crisis, we see an increasing divide among, and even within, states in the ability to ensure elections can be conducted without system failures and disruption.
- A preliminary analysis by the Brennan Center lends support to the concern expressed by some officials that without federal or state funding, wealthier counties will replace aging machines, while poorer counties will be forced to use them far longer than they should.
These are troubling findings, but our study also provides hope for the future. Technology has changed dramatically in the last decade, offering the possibility of machines that are more reliable, more usable, and less expensive. Several recent innovations — often driven by election officials who have worked with vendors, academics, and voters — could point the way to more affordable and flexible 21st century machines. While such advances may help us in future years, they will not resolve today’s crisis. There is no escaping the immediate need to plan and set aside sufficient funds to buy new machines.