Six days after Memphis voters went to the polls last October to elect a mayor and other city officials, a local computer programmer named Bennie Smith sat on his couch after work to catch up on e-mail. The vote had gone off about as well as elections usually do in Memphis, which means not well at all. The proceedings were full of the technical mishaps that have plagued Shelby County, where Memphis is the seat, since officials switched to electronic voting machines in 2006. Servers froze, and the results were hours late. But experts at the county election commission assured both candidates and voters that the problems were minor and the final tabulation wasn’t affected. … Shelby County uses a GEMS tabulator—for Global Election Management System—which is a personal computer installed with Diebold software that sits in a windowless room in the county’s election headquarters. The tabulator is the brains of the system. It monitors the voting machines, sorts out which machines have delivered data and which haven’t, and tallies the results. As voting machines check in and their votes are included in the official count, each machine’s status turns green on the GEMS master panel. A red light means the upload has failed. At the end of Memphis’s election night in October 2015, there was no indication from the technician running Shelby County’s GEMS tabulator that any voting machine hadn’t checked in or that any votes had gone missing, according to election commission e-mails obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet as county technicians followed up on the evidence from Smith’s poll-tape photo, they discovered more votes that never made it into the election night count, all from precincts with large concentrations of black voters.
For the members of Congress, who in 2002 provided almost $4 billion to modernize voting technology through the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA—Congress’s response to Bush v. Gore—this probably wasn’t the result they had in mind. But voting by computer has been a technological answer in search of a problem. Those World War II-era pull-lever voting machines may not have been the most elegant of contraptions, but they were easy to use and didn’t crash. Georgia, which in 2002 set out to be an early national model for the transition to computerized voting, shows the unintended consequences. It spent $54 million in HAVA funding to buy 20,000 touchscreen voting machines from Diebold, standardizing its technology across the state. Today, the machines are past their expected life span of 10 years. (With no federal funding in sight, Georgia doesn’t expect to be able to replace those machines until 2020.) The vote tabulators are certified to run only on Windows 2000, which Microsoft stopped supporting six years ago. To support the older operating system, the state had to hire a contractor to custom-build 100 servers—which, of course, are more vulnerable to hacking because they can no longer get current security updates. After California declared almost all of the electronic voting machines in the state unfit for use in 2007 for failing basic security tests, San Diego County put its decertified machines in storage. It has been paying the bill to warehouse them ever since: No one wants to buy them, and county rules prohibit throwing millions of dollars’ worth of machines in the trash bin.
… “This is the strangest niche of IT that I’ve ever come across,” says Merle King, executive director for the Center for Election Systems at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University, which runs the state’s vote machine testing program. “Whatever you think you know about IT, you have to check it at the door. It’s legacy stuff, but it’s legacy in weird ways. This is legacy stuff that as you start to tease it apart goes back decades.”