Mahoning County, OH (Youngstown) recently announced that it will be switching to optical scan voting machines for the November 2012 general election. The decision means County voters will no longer rely on touchscreen machines as the primary method of casting ballots, as they have since they were purchased in 2002.
The Mahoning story is a perfect example how the market for voting technology has changed in the years since passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), enacted by Congress in 2002 in response to the controversial 2000 Presidential election.
HAVA authorized almost $4 billion in federal funds for election improvements at the state and local level – much of which were earmarked for voting machine upgrades. Those funds – and the various mandates included in HAVA – made election offices motivated buyers and created a huge sellers’ market as vendors rushed to help states and localities spend their newfound dollars. In this environment Mahoning County’s $2.95 million purchase of 1100 touchscreen machines was typical.
After concerns about touchscreen machines – triggered, in part, by a controversial fundraising letterwritten by one company’s CEO – led to a call for such machines to produce a verifiable paper trail, many states imposed such requirements. Such a law in Ohio meant Mahoning spent over $864,000 to retrofit their machines in 2006.
Over time, however, many localities struggled with their machines’ usability – and Mahoning was no exception, as it had numerous issues with machine calibration, startup and shutdown in 2004. The machines often also proved to be less durable than expected; by 2011 Mahoning found that 200 of its original 1100 machines were no longer working.
Moreover, the readily-available money in 2002 to purchase the machines is long gone; Congress never fully funded HAVA and state and local funds that might have filled the gap evaporated in the wake of the national economic downturn.
This state of affairs – aging technology combined with tight to nonexistent fiscal resources – has changed voting technology into a buyer’s market. Faced with spending money they don’t have on machines they didn’t think they’d need, states and localities are kicking the tires and demanding a level of cost-effectiveness and performance they never would have considered a decade ago.