The Computer Voting Revolution Is Already Crappy, Buggy, and Obsolete

Article author: 
Michael Riley, Jordan Robertson, and David Kocieniewski
Article publisher: 
Bloomberg Businessweek
Article date: 
29 September 2016
Article category: 
National News
Article Body: 

...If you’re an election official, losing votes is a very big deal, but it presents a special problem in Tennessee. Most counties in the state don’t keep paper records of ballots, so there are no physical votes locked in a room somewhere, ready to be recounted.

When underperforming voting equipment in Florida nearly created a constitutional crisis in the 2000 presidential race, officials at least knew what went wrong. The aging Votomatic machines were supposed to be cleaned regularly, which election officials in several counties failed to do. So when voters choosing between Al Gore and George W. Bush inserted their readable punch-card ballots into the devices, they often created a half-punched piece of chaff rather than a clean cut, and entered the term “hanging chad” into the American political lexicon.

Shelby County uses a GEMS tabulator—for Global Election Management System—which is a personal computer installed with Diebold software that sits in a windowless room in the county’s election headquarters. The tabulator is the brains of the system. It monitors the voting machines, sorts out which machines have delivered data and which haven’t, and tallies the results. As voting machines check in and their votes are included in the official count, each machine’s status turns green on the GEMS master panel. A red light means the upload has failed.

At the end of Memphis’s election night in October 2015, there was no indication from the technician running Shelby County’s GEMS tabulator that any voting machine hadn’t checked in or that any votes had gone missing, according to election commission e-mails obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet as county technicians followed up on the evidence from Smith’s poll-tape photo, they discovered more votes that never made it into the election night count, all from precincts with large concentrations of black voters...

For the members of Congress, who in 2002 provided almost $4 billion to modernize voting technology through the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA—Congress’s response to Bush v. Gore—this probably wasn’t the result they had in mind. But voting by computer has been a technological answer in search of a problem. Those World War II-era pull-lever voting machines may not have been the most elegant of contraptions, but they were easy to use and didn’t crash. Georgia, which in 2002 set out to be an early national model for the transition to computerized voting, shows the unintended consequences. It spent $54 million in HAVA funding to buy 20,000 touchscreen voting machines from Diebold, standardizing its technology across the state. Today, the machines are past their expected life span of 10 years. (With no federal funding in sight, Georgia doesn’t expect to be able to replace those machines until 2020.) The vote tabulators are certified to run only on Windows 2000, which Microsoft stopped supporting six years ago. To support the older operating system, the state had to hire a contractor to custom-build 100 servers—which, of course, are more vulnerable to hacking because they can no longer get current security updates...

After California declared almost all of the electronic voting machines in the state unfit for use in 2007 for failing basic security tests, San Diego County put its decertified machines in storage...

This muddle is about to collide head-on with one of the most incendiary presidential campaigns in modern U.S. history, one in which the candidates have already questioned whether votes will be counted properly...

The real threat isn’t a thrown election. Nationwide electoral fraud would be extremely difficult to pull off, mostly because votes in the U.S. are tallied by more than 7,000 counties and townships. Hacking enough of them to tip the balance would be a monumental undertaking—and one certain to be detected. (Tabulators are designed not to be connected to the internet at all.) Rather, the risk is a violation of trust: that Election Day mishaps borne of outdated, poorly engineered technology will confirm and amplify the fear pervading this campaign...