As the US presidential election season heats up, the public has focused on the candidates vying for the nation’s top office. But whether Donald Trump will secure the Republican nomination is secondary to a more serious quandary: whether the nation’s voting machines will hold up when Americans head to the polls in 2016. Nearly every state is using electronic touchscreen and optical-scan voting systems that are at least a decade old, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law (.pdf). Beyond the fact the machines are technologically antiquated, after years of wear and tear, states are reporting increasing problems with degrading touchscreens, worn-out modems for transmitting election results, and failing motherboards and memory cards. States using machines that are at least 15 years old include Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, which means they are far behind even a casual tech user in keeping pace with technological advancements. The average lifespan of a laptop computer is three to five years, after which most consumers and businesses replace their machines. Computer users also generally upgrade their operating systems every other year or so as Microsoft and Apple release major software overhauls—including security upgrades. But US voting machines, which are responsible for overseeing the most important election in the country, have failed to keep up. “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?,” write Larry Norden and Christopher Famighetti, authors of the Brennan Center report. “[T]he majority of systems in use today are either perilously close to or past their expected lifespans.”
The use of voter ID for the first time in Mississippi has largely been characterized as inconsequential. One conservative news website noted, accurately, “Voter ID Law in Mississippi Did Not Bring On End of the World,” on June 3 in the statewide party primaries. Syndicated columnist Sid Salter wrote: “Despite the predictions of post-apocalyptic turmoil from opponents of adopting a voter identification law in Mississippi, the debut of voter ID in Mississippi in practical application was a non-event. Voters didn’t recoil from the process as predicted, and there is no discernible evidence that voter ID had any impact on voter turnout.” … Despite the rhetoric of Hosemann, Salter and others, it’s not clear whether the voter-ID requirement dampened voter turnout. The critics of such laws contend that the requirements disproportionately affect poor people, African Americans, Latinos, young people and college students, all of whom tend to vote Democratic. On June 3, approximately 400,000 people cast vo
Barack Obama has ordered the creation of a non-partisan commission on voting rights in the US in an attempt to remove the hurdles to democratic participation that dogged the 2012 presidential election. The announcement of the commission on voting puts flesh on the promise Obama made in his second inaugural speech last month to fix America’s broken voting system. Last November, voters in main urban centres were inconvenienced by long lines at polling stations that in some areas forced citizens to wait for hours before casting their ballot. Florida, in particular, witnessed chaotic scenes with more than 200,000 voters estimated to have given up having waiting because the queues were so long. Obama said that the impediments to voting needed to be corrected, as voting was “our most fundamental right as citizens. When Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.” The president added: “We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.”
Elections come and go and many issues change, but one seems to remain: electronic voting. Two years ago, four years ago, eight years ago — the story’s been about the same: the machines don’t seem ready for primetime, but we’re using them anyway. This week, the official verdict came back on some electronic vote-reading machines in the South Bronx that seemed a little fishy in the last congressional election, 2010. Larry Norden is with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and says sometimes the voting machine “was essentially overheating and because it was overheating, it was reading a lot of phantom votes — a vote that the voter didn’t actually cast, but that the machine saw.” The upshot is that in some districts in the Bronx, it turns out more than a third of votes weren’t counted. Things could get really scary in a state that’s gone all electronic, like South Carolina. University of South Carolina computer scientist Duncan Buell is worried for 2012: “I’m not sure there’s any real change from four years ago to now.” Seriously? What’s taking so long?
The voting machine that cast between 50,000 and 60,000 extra votes for New York gubernatorial candidates in November has a bug that causes it to misread some ballots and add additional votes to others when the machine itself overheats, according to a review by the state Board of Election. All of the so-called “over-votes” were thrown out after election workers reported an unrealistic spike in the number of votes from the machine, from manufacturer Election Systems and Software (ES&S), which apparently overheated during the hour or so the polling location was closed for lunch. In 2010 NYC’s City Board of Elections decided to replace its old lever-driven voting machines, that required voters to flip a lever to register their choices with a newer model from ES&S. Rather than flipping a lever, voters fill in oval spaces on paper ballots, then scan the ballots into the voting machine to register their choices. The machine counts votes automatically; the stored paper ballots remain serve as the source for recounts or backups for lost votes.