Election authorities in Kansas and Missouri are growing nervous. Their touch-screen and optical-scan election machines that voters poked and punched just a few weeks ago are growing old. Some devices now exceed their expected life cycle and need to be replaced. But the enormous cost of buying new election equipment has left legislators and budget officers with little appetite for the job. Replacing all the voting machines in just Jackson and Johnson counties would cost between $10 million and $20 million, according to some estimates, far more than lawmakers have set aside for such purchases. As a result, election officials say, voters in the 2016 presidential election may confront old, unreliable machines — and the potential for another Bush vs. Gore debacle. “We’re just really concerned,” said Bob Nichols, the Democratic election director for Jackson County. “Going into a presidential election year with old equipment — we don’t want to be another Florida.” The Presidential Commission on Election Administration warned of a voting machine crisis in a report it issued nearly a year ago. “This impending crisis arises from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago,” it wrote. “Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines, and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had the funds.”
Like many jurisdictions, Jackson County and Kansas City received one-time federal grants in the mid-2000s to help buy the voting machines they now use. The grants were part of the Help America Vote Act, passed after the Bush-Gore election in an effort to upgrade antiquated voting apparatuses across the nation. The act achieved its goal. But Washington is not expected to come up with the cash for another round of purchases, and local governments have been reluctant to sock away money for replacement machines.
Shawn Kieffer, Republican election director for the Kansas City election board, said the board has been able to save about $200,000 to replace the 450 optical-scan counters it now uses. That’s less than 10 percent of the expected cost to replace all of the board’s ballot-counting equipment. “It’s an issue,” said Shelley McThomas, the Democratic director in Kansas City, “because we know the feds aren’t going to come up with $1 billion or more” to replace machines across the country.
Johnson County owns 2,400 touch-screen machines purchased in the early 2000s by local taxpayers, not with federal grants. Those machines, now 12 years old on average, show occasional hiccups — a few misfired this November — but may be able to muddle through the 2016 election, director Brian Newby said. After that, though, all bets are off. “You just have to buy new equipment,” he said. “Everybody buys new PCs, and that’s what really has to happen.”