Outdated Voting Machines Could Pose Headaches in 2016

Fifteen years after hanging chads in Florida forced the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the contested 2000 presidential election, dysfunctional voting machines could once again disrupt Election Day, warned a report released Tuesday.

Aging voting machines around the nation are becoming obsolete and subject to such problems as flipped votes, tally errors and sudden shutdowns, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. The problematic systems would cost at least $1 billion to fix, the report warns — well more than either Congress or cash-strapped state and local governments appear prepared to invest.

“Our findings might alarm a lot of people, and that might not be a bad thing,” Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a report co-author, told CQ Roll Call. Among those states operating outdated voting machines are such key presidential swing states as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Based on interviews with dozens of election officials and technology experts, the report concluded that more than half the jurisdictions around the country will be using voting machines at or near the end of their projected lifespans in 2016. Many were purchased with the $2 billion in federal money freed up by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, enacted after the contested 2000 presidential contest pulled the curtain back on the nation’s balkanized, dilapidated and underfunded voting system.

But the touch-screen and direct-recording electronic machines that were new in 2000 had projected lifespans of no more than 10 years to 15 years, and rely on memory cards, zip disks and software programs that are now increasingly obsolete and hard to replace. Election officials reported scrambling on e-Bay to locate such parts as dot matrix printer ribbons.

“We had a system that was beginning to fail, but there were no parts to keep it running,” Arizona election official Brad Nelson told the Brennan Center.

“In some ways this is similar to what happened before 2000,” said Norden. “There were election officials who were warning that punch card machines were a disaster waiting to happen.”

On the plus side, the report noted, the federal Election Assistance Commission now has a quorum of three confirmed commissioners to advise the states on best practices and emerging technologies. Established by the Help America Vote Act to assist states in setting up and testing new voting systems, the EAC limped along between 2010 and 2014 without a full quorum.

Election officials in a few jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles and Travis County, Texas, also are experimenting with cost efficient, off-the-shelf technology to set up promising new digital voting systems, the report noted.

Given the unlikelihood that federal or state officials will invest heavily in voting machines between now and Election Day 2016, the report recommended that jurisdictions set up contingency plans, such as troubleshooting technical problems, boosting poll worker training and setting aside backup paper ballots.

“Congress put up the money after this catastrophe of 2000,” said Norden. “They do not seem inclined to do that again.”

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