A national spotlight fell on Texas’ voting equipment last week after some voters complained that their votes on electronic voting machines had changed. State election officials chalked it up to user error. Critics alleged malfeasance or a software bug. The Austin-based company behind the machines says an important piece of context is missing from this debate: these machines are 16 years old. “It’s very much like someone calling Apple and asking for support on their iPhone 1,” said Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing at Hart InterCivic. Most Texas counties last upgraded their electronic voting machines well over a decade ago, tapping billions in funds Congress approved to upgrade voting equipment around the country following election irregularities during the 2000 presidential election. Dozens of Texas counties purchased Hart’s eSlate machines. It’s those same machines that a number of voters attempted to cast straight-ticket ballots on last week only to hit a snag: when they reviewed their list of candidates on the summary screen, their choices were deselected or a candidate from an opposing party was selected.
In a statement released last week, the secretary of state’s office said that the machines were not malfunctioning and that the issue, which affected fewer than 20 Texas voters, stemmed from voters “taking an action on the machine before it has finished rendering all the choices resulting from the voter’s straight-party choice.”
“What the secretary of state characterizes as user error, I characterize as a software bug,” said Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University who studies electronic voting systems.
While he said he cannot know for sure why some votes were changed, he suspects that a bug known as a “race condition” could be to blame. A race condition is a common problem in computer science in which the machine must process two requests at the same time, and the dueling requests compete for the machine’s resources, Wallach said.
“In software engineering, dealing with the case where there is more than one thing happening at the same time is the hardest type of software,” Wallach said.
Records from the secretary of state’s office, which certifies election systems purchased by counties, show that the most recent certification of new eSlate software was in 2009. With software that is now about a decade old, Wallach said he would “not be surprised” if there is a bug.