Millions of Americans will cast votes in Tuesday’s midterm elections, some on machines that experts say use outdated software or are vulnerable to hacking. If there are glitches or some races are too close to call — or evidence emerges of more meddling attempts by Russia — voters may wake up on Wednesday and wonder: Can we trust the outcome? Meet, then, the gatekeepers of American democracy: Three obscure, private equity-backed companies control an estimated $300 million U.S. voting-machine industry. Though most of their revenue comes from taxpayers, and they play an indispensable role in determining the balance of power in America, the companies largely function in secret. Devices made by Election Systems & Software LLC, Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic Inc. will process about nine of every ten ballots next week. Each of the companies is privately held and at least partially controlled by private equity firms. Beyond that, little is known about how they operate or to whom they answer. They don’t disclose financial results and aren’t subject to federal regulation. While the companies say their technology is secure and up-to-date, security experts for years have raised concerns that older, sometimes poorly engineered, equipment can jeopardize the integrity of elections and, more importantly, erode public trust.
“We have more federal regulation of ballpoint pens and Magic Markers than our voting infrastructure,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University School of Law. “There’s no national system, and the result is that states are largely forced to buy from these companies.”
Read more on problems with Georgia’s voting machines.
The U.S. Constitution assigns responsibility for elections to the states, which often task counties or even towns to conduct elections and set equipment standards. As a result, voting-machine companies cater to a market of about 10,000 jurisdictions ranging in size from more than 4 million voters in Los Angeles County to fewer than 500 in some rural areas. As many as 19 vendors divided the market in the early 2000s, according to John R. Patrick, who wrote the 2016 book “Election Attitude: How Internet Voting Leads to a Stronger Democracy.”