The 2016 campaign is already underway, with nearly two dozen candidates vying to be the next president. Americans may have no idea who they will vote for next year, but they are likely confident that when they show up at the polls, their votes will count. And for the vast majority, of course, they will. But with rapidly aging voting technology, the risk of machines failing is greater than it has been in many years. In a close election, the performance of that old equipment will come under a microscope. Fifteen years after a national election trauma in Florida that was caused in significant measure by obsolete voting equipment—including hanging chads and butterfly ballots—it may be hard for many Americans to believe that the U.S. could face such a crisis again. But unless the right precautions are taken today and in the coming months and years, there is a significant risk that the story on Election Day will be less about who won or lost, and more about how voting systems failed. The looming crisis in America’s voting technology was first brought to national attention last year by President Obama’s bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), which offered a stern warning about the “widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago.” Over the past 10 months, the Brennan Center, where we work, surveyed more than 100 specialists familiar with voting technology, including machine vendors, independent technology experts, and election officials in all 50 states, to study how widespread this looming crisis really was.
We found bad news and good. First, the bad: The problem of aging voting technology reaches nearly every corner of the United States. Unlike voting machines used in past eras, today’s systems were not designed to last for decades. In part this is due to the pace of technological change. No one expects a laptop to last 10 years. And although today’s machines debuted at the beginning of this century, many were designed and engineered in the 1990s.
Even worse, while many jurisdictions acknowledge that their machines need to be replaced, they haven’t sorted out who should pay for it. Counties often argue the states should pay, while many states argue this has always been a local responsibility. In many cases, both hold out hope that they can get some federal support, but that seems very unlikely. “Some jurisdictions seem to be saying we’re just going to wait until another catastrophe and then maybe Congress will pay for it,” Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser with the Bipartisan Policy Center, told us. “This is not a good plan.”
On the other hand, the PCEA’s report spurred conversations, and in many cases, spending on new equipment. Several counties and states will have new machines before the 2016 election, and some counties are even developing their own voting systems, which offer the hope of technology that is designed around the needs of voters.