FUNDING TO UPGRADE AGING VOTING MACHINES ELUSIVE
Texas among 31 states looking for funds to fix systems.
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It’s a race against time, experts warn, as outdated technology grows increasingly susceptible to potentially critical malfunctions.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.
In Bexar County, Zip disks are vital to tallying votes. But the advanced version of a floppy disk hasn’t been manufactured for years.