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 It’s a race against time, experts warn, as outdated technology grows increasingly susceptible to potentially critical malfunctions.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.
“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.