Two Vir­ginia coun­ties did the im­prob­a­ble

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MICHAEL WINDLE AND MATTHEW CAULFIELD Michael Windle and Matthew Caulfield were part of a team of six Whar­ton School stu­dents who wrote “The Busi­ness of Vot­ing,” a re­port spon­sored by the Penn Whar­ton Pub­lic Pol­icy Ini­tia­tive.

Across two coun­ties in Vir­ginia, last month’s pri­mary elec­tions brought new vot­ing tech­nol­ogy to the polling places, re­plac­ing some ma­chines that had been in use for 12 years and were made with tech­nol­ogy de­signed in the 1990s. This de­vel­op­ment is im­por­tant not be­cause of prob­lems with the new ma­chines — none were re­ported — but be­cause of the ur­gent need for election ad­min­is­tra­tors na­tion­ally to up­date old vot­ing tech­nol­ogy.

The age of Amer­ica’s vot­ing ma­chines has been thor­oughly stud­ied, and the land­scape of the vot­ing tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try is a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to what has been deemed by an Obama-era pres­i­den­tial com­mis­sion an “im­pend­ing cri­sis.” Un­for­tu­nately, most election ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in the United States are un­likely to eas­ily do what lead­ers in two coun­ties did in Vir­ginia last month: re­place their vot­ing ma­chines.

A re­cent re­port by a team of re­searchers at the Whar­ton School at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia de­tails that the mar­ket struc­ture of the vot­ing-tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try is a core cause of the stag­na­tion that keeps vot­ers across the United States us­ing ma­chines more than 10 years old.

Since 2002’s Help Amer­ica Vote Act, con­sid­er­able ven­dor con­sol­i­da­tion has brought the three largest U.S. election tech­nol­ogy firms to reach about 92 per­cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers (those who have ac­cess to some form of elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chine). For com­par­i­son, the mar­ket reach held by the three largest election tech­nol­ogy firms ex­ceeds that of Ver­i­zon, AT&T and T-Mo­bile (which to­gether hold about 84 per­cent of U.S. mar­ket share for wire­less sub­scrip­tions) as well as South­west, Delta, Amer­i­can and United (which hold a com­bined 68 per­cent of the do­mes­tic air­line mar­ket share in the United States).

Ad­di­tion­ally, election tech­nol­ogy firms face an in­dus­try with se­verely lim­ited growth (the U.S. vot­ing pop­u­la­tion is rel­a­tively sta­ble) and with sev­eral thou­sand po­ten­tial cus­tomers (county and state election of­fi­cials) who have lim­ited bud­gets and idio­syn­cratic needs and de­sires.

Election tech­nol­ogy firms are slow to innovate be­cause of a lack of con­sis­tent fund­ing for their prod­ucts, and a lengthy and ex­pen­sive cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process for new ma­chines. High switch­ing costs lead lo­cal election ad­min­is­tra­tors to stay with their cur­rent ven­dors when mak­ing pur­chases or up­grades, fur­ther dis­cour­ag­ing in­no­va­tion in the mar­ket.

All this is de­spite vot­ers them­selves want­ing newer vot­ing ma­chines. A Novem­ber 2016 poll re­vealed that nearly 80 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who voted in the pres­i­den­tial con­test be­lieved it was time for the United States to up­grade its election sys­tems, and more than 80 per­cent thought that th­ese up­dates would not only in­crease trust in the sys­tem, but also im­prove the over­all election process and strengthen U.S. democ­racy.

De­spite election ad­min­is­tra­tion re­cently be­ing la­beled a piece of our na­tion’s “crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture” (to the cha­grin of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Sec­re­taries of State), the United States does not have a co­he­sive plan or strat­egy to bring newer vot­ing ma­chines to polling places. As a re­sult, vot­ing tech­nol­ogy has been up­dated on an ad hoc and piece­meal ba­sis, often one county at a time, as is the case in two Vir­ginia coun­ties ahead of last month’s pri­mary elec­tions.

Po­ten­tially fruit­ful strate­gies have been iden­ti­fied, how­ever. For ex­am­ple, sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments to our vot­ing tech­nol­ogy could come as a re­sult of pur­chas­ing coali­tions and the de­vel­op­ment of open-source sys­tems (which is tak­ing place in large coun­ties such as Travis County, Tex., and Los An­ge­les County). Or the coun­try’s re­liance on old vot­ing ma­chines could be shaken via reg­u­la­tory shifts to­ward the ap­proval of off-the-shelf tech­nolo­gies and sup­port­ing mod­u­lar tech­nol­ogy over end-to-end mono­lithic sys­tems.

But not­with­stand­ing the oc­ca­sional for­ward-think­ing vot­ing tech­nol­ogy re­place­ments, such as those in Au­gusta County (75,000 res­i­dents) and Mathews County (9,000 res­i­dents), if there is no in­ter­ven­tion in the cur­rent mar­ket struc­ture, swaths of the United States are destined to have old and mal­func­tion­ing equip­ment for many elec­tions to come.

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