FUND­ING TO UP­GRADE AG­ING VOT­ING MA­CHINES ELU­SIVE

Texas among 31 states look­ing for funds to fix sys­tems.

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By David Saleh Rauf

At least once a year, staffers in one of Texas’ largest elec­tion of­fices scour the web for a relic from a by­gone tech­nol­ogy era: Zip disks.

The ad­vanced ver­sion of the floppy disk, which was cut­ting edge in the mid1990s, plays a vi­tal role in tal­ly­ing votes in Bexar County — where, like other places around the U.S., money to re­place an­ti­quated vot­ing equip­ment is scarce.

“I’d be dead in the wa­ter with­out our tech­ni­cal sup­port peo­ple look­ing on­line to buy the pieces and parts to keep us go­ing,” said Jacque Cal­la­nen, elec­tions ad­min­is­tra­tor in the county that in­cludes San An­to­nio.

Bexar County had more than 1 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers in the 2016 elec­tion.

Pur­chased in 2002, the county’s vot­ing equip­ment is among the old­est in Texas. The Zip disks the county uses to help merge re­sults and al­low paper bal­lots to be tal­lied with fi­nal elec­tion to­tals are no longer man­u­fac­tured, so staff mem­bers snap them up by the dozens off eBay and Ama­zon.

Elec­tions of­fi­cials in states large and small — from Texas to North Dakota, Cal­i­for­nia to Ohio — are eager to re­place ag­ing ma­chines but are grap­pling with how to fund next-gen­er­a­tion vot­ing equip­ment.

It’s a race against time, ex­perts warn, as out­dated tech­nol­ogy grows in­creas­ingly sus­cep­ti­ble to po­ten­tially crit­i­cal mal­func­tions. All of this comes as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump prom­ises to launch an investigation into un­proven voter fraud al­le­ga­tions and ten­sions are ris­ing over for­eign med­dling in U.S. elec­tions.

“The ma­chines in many cases are 10, 12 years old. That’s an­cient his­tory in terms of tech­nol­ogy,” said Denise Mer­rill, the top elec­tion of­fi­cial in Con­necti­cut and pres­i­dent of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Sec­re­taries of State. “I don’t see any money com­ing from Washington, so the states are go­ing to have to fig­ure this out on their own.”

The U.S. gov­ern­ment last ponied up big for elec­toral in­fra­struc­ture up­grades in the wake of the 2000 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, when prob­lems with paper bal­lots were dis­as­trous for Florida’s re­count. The 2002 Help Amer­ica Vote Act pro­vided $4 bil­lion to states, but that money is largely gone. With many state leg­is­la­tures un­will­ing to al­lo­cate fund­ing, elec­tion of­fi­cials are left scram­bling to make do.

Forty-three states used ma­chines that were at least a decade old and near­ing the end of their life spans dur­ing Novem­ber’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, an ad­vo­cate for pro­tect­ing elec­tion rights. Elec­tion of­fi­cials in at least 31 states want to pur­chase new vot­ing ma­chines in the next few years, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port from the cen­ter. Most, how­ever, don’t know where they’ll get the money.

Cal­i­for­nia’s sec­re­tary of state has pro­jected it could cost up to $450 mil­lion to re­place that state’s vot­ing ma­chines.

In Arkansas, law­mak­ers two years ago ap­proved $30 mil­lion for new statewide vot­ing sys­tems. But the ap­pro­pri­a­tion was never funded, so the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice used left­over money in its bud­get to im­prove equip­ment for a small slice of the state. It’s again ask­ing the Leg­is­la­ture for money.

Ohio’s elec­tions chief is ask­ing state law­mak­ers for help for coun­ties, not­ing in his bud­get re­quest that it cost more than $100 mil­lion to re­place old ma­chines with money from the U.S. gov­ern­ment in 2005.

Leg­is­la­tion in Texas would cre­ate a pro­gram for coun­ties to ap­ply for a state grant to cover up to half the cost to re­place vot­ing ma­chines.

Na­tion­ally, vot­ing ma­chines mostly sur­vived the strain of the 2016 elec­tion. But there were some mishaps, in­clud­ing long lines at­trib­uted to faulty sys­tems and com­puter crashes, along with re­ports from some peo­ple that they chose one can­di­date only to see elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines switch their selec­tion as they fin­ished their bal­lot.

“The big fear is a re­peat of the Florida 2000 elec­tion,” said Lawrence Nor­den, who co-au­thored the Bren­nan Cen­ter’s vot­ing ma­chine re­port.

ERIC GAY / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In Bexar County, Zip disks are vi­tal to tal­ly­ing votes. But the ad­vanced ver­sion of a floppy disk hasn’t been man­u­fac­tured for years.

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