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.”
What’s more, many of the machines are running an embedded version of Windows XP, an operating system Microsoft no longer supports or is about to stop supporting, depending upon the version of XP the system is using. That means Microsoft won produce patches for any new security holes found in the software. Almost all of the machines in California run on XP, and some even run on Windows 2000.
In addition to this problem, a number of voting machine vendors have gone out of business, making it difficult for states to find parts to service their machines. Forty-three states use systems that are no longer manufactured. Some election officials have resorted to scouring eBay for decommissioned equipment they can cannibalize to extend the life of their machines. Georgia was in such dire straits over the lack of parts for its voting machines that it hired a consultant to build customized hardware that could run its Windows 2000-based election system software.
“[W]e have about 170 of these servers,” Merle King, director of the center for Election Systems told the Brennan Center. “We would order them in blocks of 40 or 80 units so that we could continue to run the Windows 2000 operating systems that we use to run our election management system.”