Aging Voting Machines Cost Local, State Governments

jdwfoto / Shutterstock.com

Connect with state & local government leaders
 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Outdated voting equipment creates a perilous situation for state and local governments: an equipment breakdown on Election Day could mean long lines, potentially leaving some people unable to vote.

This article was originally published at Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and was written by Sarah Breitenbach.

This year, as Americans select the next president, the entire U.S. House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, as well as an array of state and local officials, many voters will cast ballots on a generation of electronic voting machines that is nearing extinction.

Most of the machines, adopted by local governments after “hanging chads” left the 2000 presidential election in the balance for weeks, are at least a decade old. And they create a perilous situation: an equipment breakdown on Election Day could mean long lines, potentially leaving some people unable to vote.

But replacing the old machines with newer models is costly. The latest computerized machines typically cost between $2,500 and $3,000 each, and election boards should budget for one machine per 250 to 300 registered voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

That high cost is just one reason the computerized machines, which record ballots via a touch-screen, push-button or dial mechanism, have been falling out of favor with cash-strapped local governments. Some elections officials and lawmakers also worry the machines could be hacked and lead to voter fraud.

Some states are already turning to other approaches. This year Maryland voters will cast paper ballots that can be scanned by machines. Optical scanners that read paper ballots cost up to $5,000, but only one is needed per polling location, making them a cheaper approach than computerized voting machines. In Virginia, officials have ditched most of their voting machines in favor a similar system, and legislation before the General Assembly would get rid of all voting machines in the state by 2018.

In New Hampshire, a proposal would create a municipal grant program to support local governments that want to change their election procedures, and lawmakers in Ohio put a provision in the state budget to save money by eliminating certain special elections.

About 25 percent of voters will use electronic voting systems this year, said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit focused on ballot accuracy. That’s down from 30 to 40 percent when the machines were more popular.

In most states, those machines are at least 10 years old, an age at which most reach the end of their life span, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice. Nearly every state is using machines that are no longer manufactured.

Jurisdictions have to “make sure they have good emergency provisions in place,” Smith said. “If you have a good paper ballot and scanner system in place as your voting system, even if your scanner breaks down, voters can still vote.”

Cost of Voting

State and local governments first began to buy computer voting machines in the early 2000s under the federal Help America Vote Act. Some states still have HAVA money on hand, but additional federal help is not expected and many governments have trouble paying for new election equipment — typically from a combination of state and local coffers.

Election funding often butts against the need to pay for more in-demand priorities like schools and roads, said Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican.

“You can’t wait for it to break to fix it,” he said. “You can wait for a road to have issues to fix it, but if you wait to do that in an election, it’s too late.”

Across the country, officials in at least 31 states want to purchase new voting machines within five years, but at least 22 of them don’t know where the money will come from, according to the Brennan Center report.

The Center estimates the total national cost of replacing existing machines could exceed $1 billion. The country’s largest jurisdiction, Los Angeles County, has allocated $70 million to design and develop its own voting system for the 5 million registered voters who live there. County officials are pursuing a system that will allow voters to cast ballots on a touch-screen device that would issue a printed ballot that they would place in a ballot box to be counted.

But other county and local governments will have to get by with existing equipment because many states have cut their election budgets in recent years. In 2014, Virginia lawmakers stripped $28 million from the state budget that was intended to pay for new voting machines.

In Utah, Republican Rep. Brad Daw is pushing legislation that would replace the state’s aging computer-based machines. His proposal would set up a selection committee to recommend voting equipment and help counties pay for the machines if they choose to use the state-selected brand.

Daw, who is also a software engineer, said he’s never been a fan of the state’s computer voting machines — they require a lot of equipment and their operating systems are easy to hack, he said.

Opponents of the machines also say they create long lines as voters have a hard time figuring out how to use them; they are prone to crashes as the software ages; and they are vulnerable to attack. A 2014 analysis of Virginia’s computerized voting machines found that hackers could access the wireless networks the machines ran on to view or change votes.

A system by which voters mark paper ballots that are scanned by machine could be a better option, Daw said.

“Marking a piece of paper is pretty old school,” he said. “But marking a piece of paper and putting it through a scanner” is just as efficient.

As the computer models fade out, most jurisdictions are replacing them with the scanner systems, which are more affordable and were recommended by experts following the 2000 presidential election. But, the high-tech (for the time) computer systems were more attractive, Smith said, because “nobody wanted to be the next Florida.”

Voting by Mail

To save on election costs, a few states have turned to voting by mail.

Oregon, Washington and Colorado require that all elections be conducted by mailed ballots, though many others permit localities to conduct mail-in special elections. California, Hawaii and Oklahoma are also considering mail-in systems.

In Oregon, the first state to adopt a mail-in process, in 2000, all eligible voters are mailed a ballot, which can be mailed back to the election board, completed in person at a county clerk’s office or placed in a public drop box. People with disabilities are able to vote on machines at a clerk’s office.

The ballots are examined by election board workers who verify voters’ signatures and then pass them through scanners that tabulate results.

Phil Keisling, Oregon’s former secretary of state who is credited with pioneering the vote-by-mail program, said it not only saves money — an estimated $3 million per election cycle in Oregon — by reducing the number of polling places and machines required to hold an election, but also increases turnout.

A 2015 analysis from The Pew Charitable Trusts shows more people are voting by mail. In 2012, 19 percent of U.S. ballots were cast by mail, up from 10 percent in 2000 (Pew also funds Stateline).

During the 2012 presidential election, 64.2 percent of voters cast ballots in Oregon, compared with a national voter turnout of 58.6 percent.

In the last four general elections, 40 percent of Oregon voters returned their ballots by mail and roughly 56 percent returned them via public drop boxes, said Jim Williams, elections director for the Oregon secretary of state. The remaining ballots were cast by walk-in voters.

Last year, San Mateo County, California, held its first mail-in special election, garnering a nearly 30 percent voter turnout, almost five percentage points higher than a similar election two years earlier. Only 2.5 percent of ballots were cast at a precinct or voting center in the 2015 election, down from 24 percent in 2013.

While Oregon has had success as the first state to move to a mail-in system, few others are interested, Keisling said.

Some states are resistant to mail-in ballots simply because they buck tradition, said Wendy Underhill of NCSL.

“Cost is one consideration,” Underhill said. “But it is by no means the only consideration. [Mail-in voting] does change the feel of Election Day. That’s not a small consideration.” 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.