States scramble for funding to upgrade aging voting machines
March 12, 2017
AUSTIN, Texas — At least once a year, staffers in one of Texas' largest election offices scour the web for a relic from a bygone technology era: Zip disks.
The advanced version of the floppy disk that was cutting edge in the mid-1990s plays a vital role in tallying votes in Bexar County, where like other places around the U.S., money to replace antiquated voting equipment is scarce.
"I'd be dead in the water without our technical support people looking online to buy the pieces and parts to keep us going," said Jacque Callanen, elections administrator in the county that includes San Antonio and had 1 million-plus registered voters in the 2016 election.
Purchased in 2002, Bexar County's voting equipment is among the oldest in Texas. The Zip disks the county uses to help merge results and allow paper ballots to be tallied with final election totals are no longer manufactured, so staff members snap them up by the dozens off of eBay and Amazon.
Elections officials in states large and small — from Texas to North Dakota, California to Ohio — are eager to replace aging machines but are grappling with how to fund next-generation voting equipment.
It's a race against time, experts warn, as outdated technology grows increasingly susceptible to potentially critical malfunctions. All of this comes as President Donald Trump promises to launch an investigation into unfounded voter fraud allegations and tensions are rising over foreign meddling in U.S. elections.
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"The machines in many cases are 10, 12 years old. That's ancient history in terms of technology," said Denise Merrill, the top election official in Connecticut and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "I don't see any money coming from Washington, so the states are going to have to figure this out on their own."
The U.S. government last ponied up big for electoral infrastructure upgrades in the wake of the 2000 presidential election — when paper-ballot problems wreaked havoc on Florida's recount. The 2002 Help America Vote Act provided $4 billion to states, but that money is largely gone. With many state legislatures unwilling to allocate funding, election officials are left scrambling to make do.
Forty-three states used machines that were at least a decade old and nearing the end of their lifespans during November's presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for protecting election rights. Election officials in a least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines in the coming years, according to a 2015 report from the center. Most, however, don't know where they'll get the money.
California's secretary of state has projected it could cost up to $450 million to replace voting machines there.
In Arkansas, lawmakers two years ago approved $30 million for new statewide voting systems. But the appropriation was never funded, so the secretary of state's office used leftover money in its budget to improve equipment for a small slice of the state. It's again asking the Legislature for money.
Ohio's elections chief also is asking state lawmakers for help for counties, noting in his budget request that it cost more than $100 million to replace old machines with money from the U.S. government in 2005.
Legislation in Texas would create a program for counties to apply for a state grant to cover up to half the cost to replace voting machines.
In North Dakota, lawmakers recently rejected proposals for $12 million to replace voting equipment, even after being told machines could be unworkable by the next presidential cycle. The secretary of state has since rolled the funding request into his budget proposal in hopes lawmakers will reconsider.
"You can't fix our machines anymore, but it's hard to get anything with a price tag pushed through," said Donnell Preskey Hushka, a government relations specialist for the North Dakota Association of Counties.
Some machines are no longer manufactured, making it hard to find replacement parts. Others, like those in Texas' Bexar County, require election workers to track down obsolete materials.
Voting machines nationally mostly survived the strain of the 2016 election. But there were some mishaps, including long lines attributed to faulty systems and computer crashes, along with reports from some people that they chose one candidate only to see electronic voting machines switch their selection as they finished their ballot.
"The big fear is a repeat of the Florida 2000 election," said Lawrence Norden, who co-authored the Brennan Center's voting machine report.
Dean Logan, Los Angeles County's elections chief, said it requires "herculean efforts to maintain systems and keep the process moving" for most counties using outdated equipment.
"Voters should be aware that without funding … this is only going to get worse," said Logan, who is also president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. "We all recognize we are maintaining outdated systems. We're just waiting for both the funding and the products to lead us into the future."