The 2016 election is over, and while much has been written about who voted and for whom, and what the media missed, there has been frustratingly little post-election coverage on the problem of Americans being disenfranchised by predictable and avoidable shortcomings in the ways we administer elections. Election administrators had to fend off a lot in 2016 before the election even started — claims that elections were rigged, hacks into voter registration databases, out-of-date technology, calls for private citizens to appoint themselves watchers of polling places, and politicians passing laws restricting access to the ballot. Each of those issues contributed to problems at the polls. They were compounded by a persistent problem of insufficient resources. Aging voting machines are a known risk to the functioning of the voting system and public confidence. In 2015, the Brennan Center warned that 42 states use machines that are at least a decade old and approaching the end of their projected lifespans.
There were many reported machine problems across the country in 2012, but even more this year. These problems took a number of forms:
- Broken ballot scanners, which in New York caused delays and provoked complaints from voters.
- “Improperly coded memory cards” that led three-quarters of all the machines in Washington County, Utah to break down. Poll sites offered backup paper ballots — until some of them ran out and told voters to come back later.
- “Vote flipping” on touchscreen direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, which incorrectly register a voter’s choice and feed fears that voting equipment is rigged for particular candidates. This is often the result of age and poor calibration, and was observed this year in at least Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas.
But the problems were not just limited to just machines. This year’s election also presented a relatively new problem from a promising technology: electronic poll books. When functioning properly, electronic poll books can speed up the process for checking in voters. But on Election Day in Durham, North Carolina, electronic poll books failed by incorrectly indicating which voters had already cast ballots, which forced poll workers to check-in voters by hand. Eventually, some polling places began turning away voters after running out of the paper forms that were used to check in voters instead. This led to long lines and the extension of voting hours in eight Durham precincts. And in Colorado, the state’s voter registration database shut down and caused rippling disruptions. There were problems with this technology in a handful of places in 2012 (Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, and Michigan), but nothing affecting an entire county and requiring the drastic measures used this year.