Every four years there is a topic that seems to come up during the last months of the election process: Voting Machines --- specifically, their sad state, and suggestions to fix the problems with them. Mix in one of the candidate’s claims that this election is rigged and that 30% of Trump supporters and about 20% of Clinton’s respond that they doubt the legitimacy of the president if the other party wins --- and you begin to understand why people can’t wait for this election to be over.
Given the benefits of using voting machines (they speed up the voting and tabulation process and hence encourage more citizens to vote) why are there so many scary headlines like:
“America’s Electronic Voting Machines Are Scarily Easy Targets”
“The Dismal State of America’s Decade-Old Voting Machines”
“10 Reasons Why Voting Systems Are Not Created Equal”
"Should voters be worried about aging voting machines?”
“Election Day Woes: Some Question Voting Machines”
...and virtually no headlines containing the phrase “The voting machines are fine, thank you very much”? This leads me to assume that there are still some problems that need to be examined.
Let’s narrow the problem down to electronic voting machines which, like any computer system have vulnerable software and hardware. If I can hack into a voting machine and replace its programs with mine then I can make it produce any results I like. Also if the machines are on a network then my virus can travel on that network infecting more machines. And if the Internet (the ultimate network) is used to tabulate votes, fuggetaboudit. That’s the first major issue, but keep in mind that there is no evidence that this has ever happened ---- so far.
Another issue that cuts both ways is the decentralization of the voting machines. Not only the individual states but local voting districts can make decisions regarding the security provided for these machines. Since there exists about 200,000 voting precincts, it would be an overwhelming task to hack into all of them; in this case the decentralization is a benefit, not a cost.
So it’s pretty much impossible to make all the voting machines communicate via the Internet which is the greatest risk --- and that’s the good news. The real problem seems to be that many of the machines are outdated.
An extensive study by The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute, found that forty-three states will use outdated electronic voting machines when people head to the polls in 2016, potentially leaving the door open to various problems including the possibility of crashes and lost votes. Of course the results hinge on your definition of “outdated” and the assumption made by the researchers was that an outdated machine had to be at least 10 years old.
The Center discovered that 43 states have voting machines that are at least 10 years old putting them “perilously close” to most of the systems’ expected lifespan. This includes a significant percentage of machines in key swing states such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. The study also found that 14 states have machines that are at least 15 years old.
“No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. How can we expect these machines, many of which were designed and engineered in the 1990s, to keep running without increased failures?” said Lawrence Norden, co-author of the study. He goes on to describe why outdated machines are a bigger problem than hacking, “If you have machines not working, or working slowly, that could create lots of problems too, preventing people from voting at all.”
Just last year, the election board of Virginia (one of the battleground states) decertified 3000 voting machines after an investigation revealed the software was hackable. When the governor proposed that the problem could be fixed by replacing the machines for $28 million the legislature turned down the request. So it’s a case of money and politics which has always been a problem --- with a dwindling state budget politicians confronted with replacing voting machine or fixing potholes will spend where the voters are complaining the most. Hopefully, after this election, our elected representatives will have the political backbone to deal with this issue.