By: Matthew Woodward
While the 2016 presidential election may have cast light on foreign interference in US elections, the general election of 2018 highlighted an additional, albeit more homegrown, threat: broken and outdated voting machines.
In 2018, as reported by the AP, 41 states used voting machines that were more than a decade old and, perhaps even more alarming, 43 states used voting machines that are no longer in production. One state, South Carolina, offers an unfortunate example of this trend. The bulk of the state’s current voting machines were purchased in 2004, making them nearly 15 years old at the time of the 2018 election. Some context—2004 was also the year of such technological feats as the birth of Facebook, the arrival of Skype, and the earliest introduction of cell-phone cameras.
Aside from being almost old enough to vote, machines as dated as the ones used in South Carolina, and in at least 40 other states, created all-too real problems on election day in 2018. Many states reported long-lines and delays at the polls due to glitches, crashes, and other problems commonly associated with computers made the same year George W. Bush won a second term.
In South Carolina, the delays caused by old, malfunctioning machines were extreme. At a single policing place in Charleston County, slow machines led to a line of 600 people waiting to vote—with only four poll workers available to check voters in. For South Carolina, any election-day issue that may negatively affect turnout is critical given the state’s existing problems with turnout. In 2018, the state’s voter turnout was a middling 45.20%—making South Carolina 41st nationally in voter participation.
Researchers have found that long lines alone—regardless of cause—can make first time voters less likely to vote in the future. Surveys also suggest that long-lines make voters less confident in the worth of their individual vote—two big concerns for South Carolina election officials aiming to encourage more voting.
Apart from being one of the many states limping along with outdated or obsolete machines, South Carolina faced an additional technology problem in 2018: machines that repeatedly changed voters’ selections.
On election day 2018, large groups of voters in Richland County reported that the selections displayed on the final confirmation screen did not reflect their choices—and that even after going back and correcting the vote—the confirmation screen displayed a vote for the unselected option. Poll workers scrambled to respond and were forced to move voters to alternate machines.
For state officials, these serious problems should not be surprising. As early as 2013, the state’s Legislative Audit Council was aware of problems caused by old machines. In a report from March of that year, the Council expressed worry about the general age of the state’s machines—a model known as the iVotronic. The 2013 report also includes grave concerns over the fact the state’s machines did not produce a paper trail of votes cast.
A paper trail—officially called a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail—provides an additional layer of security because it allows all electronic votes to be cross-checked against the paper record of voter inputs. Though standard on many machines, the iVotronic model used across South Carolina in 2018 did not have this feature. Given the vote switching problems, the lack of a “hard copy” of voter’s choices seems especially troublesome.
In 2019, the state has put finally put forward measures designed to alleviate some of the machine problems in its elections. In June of this year, the South Carolina Election Commission announced it had contracted for a new voting machine system: ExpressVote. Most importantly, these machines produce a paper record of all ballots cast. Seemingly speaking to the attention Richland County reccvied in 2018, Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino says the upgrade was motivated by a need to provide “voters the assurance that every vote is counted as the voter intended.”
As the new machines are put into use, South Carolina election officials will be watching closely. In a state with already low voter turnout, voting machines—perhaps the most overlooked part of an election—have become a source of anxiety for election watchdogs and voters alike. In South Carolina, and nationwide, election authorities should remember a basic principle: an election can only succeed if voters can vote. Machines that work are mandatory.