A ProPublica analysis of voting machines found that over two-thirds of counties in America used machines for the 2016 election that are over a decade old. In most jurisdictions, the same equipment will be used in the 2018 election. In a recent nationwide survey by the Brennan Center for Justice, election officials in 33 states reported needing to replace their voting equipment by 2020. Officials complain the machines are difficult to maintain and susceptible to crashes and failure, problems that lead to long lines and other impediments in voting and, they fear, a sense among voters that the system itself is untrustworthy.
The federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was a source of state funding after its passage in 2002, with $3.6 billion given to states and territories to upgrade systems and administration. But since then, there has been no federal level financial support for states to maintain or replace voting machines, and few states still have unspent HAVA funds. (HAVA had its issues, too--its primary author, Rep. Bob Ney, resigned after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements in relation to the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff, whose lobbying clients included touch-screen voting manufacturer Diebold, a big beneficiary of HAVA procurement regulations).
It's clear that paperless electronic voting machines have to go. Even in the absence of any kind of pre-election manipulation, these machines aren't foolproof, and have been documented to occasionally "flip" votes. Without a backup paper trail, the real results, in a recount, are anyone's guess.
Beyond that, there are two ways to deal with obsolescence of our electronic voting machines. First, we could upgrade old systems with new ones, insisting that new machines also allow for easy, efficient paper-based recounts. But even with improved security and audits, remember that the "hack-proof" voting machine is a myth.
But the second is to go back to hand-counted paper ballots. There are advantages and disadvantages to a purely paper system. Counting ballots is time-consuming, especially when states or cities also use a ranked-choice system. It's debatable whether voters would also step up as volunteer ballot-counters. Ballot-box stuffing is a possibility as well--the results are only going to be as valid as the counters are honest. However, as electronic voting expert Jonathan Simon has noted, ballot counting could bring volunteers from different parties together in support of a basic exercise of democracy, reducing partisanship and increasing local cooperation. The time it took to count and verify the results would defuse the "Super Bowl-style" hype around elections. If it took a day or two to learn who was the next mayor, governor, or president, so be it--it's an important decision that we'll be living with for a while.
The Alliance's Peoples Vote Must Count project is a three-step program to institute hand-counted paper ballots, beginning with a look into election hacking, followed by studying how your elections are conducted, and then introducing a hand-counted-paper-ballot initiative to either replace your current system or provide a robust audit of results, depending on local needs. You can find out more here, and read more about election protection and voter rights in this issue of Justice Rising.