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Digital Voting Machines Are Aging Out Of Use

Publication Date: 
February 02, 2014
Source: 
USA Today
Author: 
Martha T. Moore

Professor Nate Persily weighs in on the recommendations featured in the Presidential Commission on Election Administration and why, until now there's been "little incentive" for voting system manufacturers to develop new technology. 

Lori Edwards needs a new voting system for Polk County, Fla., where she is the supervisor of elections for 360,000 registered voters. She has just two problems: There is no money in the budget, and there is nothing she wants to buy.

Edwards faces what a bipartisan federal commission has identified as an "impending crisis" in American elections. After a decade of use, a generation of electronic voting equipment is about to wear out and will cost tens of millions to replace. Though voters can pay for coffee with an iPhone, technology for casting their ballots is stuck in the pre-smartphone era — because of a breakdown in federal standard-setting.

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The 2000 presidential election recount resulted in an outpouring of $3 billion in federal funds for states, counties and municipalities to buy new voting equipment, through the Help America Vote Act of 2002. A decade later, "machines that were purchased in 2003 are now starting to break down, and (election) jurisdictions are concerned that this will become more frequent,'' says Nate Persily, research director for the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, created by President Obama after 10 million voters waited more than half an hour to vote in 2012.

The commission sounded the alarm partly because election officials may be reluctant to, Persily says. "People don't want to broadcast there's potentially an election debacle on the horizon, for the same reason that nobody who could potentially could get sued in an election wants to explain the danger coming. So they do what they can with what they have.''

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A more complicated problem is that federal standards for voting systems haven't been updated since 2005 – two years before the introduction of the iPhone. The federal Election Assistance Commission, which sets standards and certifies voting systems, hasn't had a quorum of commissioners since 2010. "Very few of us have laptops that we had 11 years ago,'' Persily says.

As a result, election administrators say, there's been little incentive for the dwindling number of voting system manufacturers to develop technology, let alone go through a long certification process. "They're existing in a legal netherworld,'' Persily says.