Think 'President Trump' is scary? Outdated voting tech puts US at risk for 2000-style election catastrophe
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets fairgoers while campaigning at the Iowa State Fair on August 15, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Win Mcnamee for Agence France-Presse.)

The United States is heading for another catastrophe in its voting system equivalent to the notorious “hanging chad” affair that shook the country in 2000 and propelled George W Bush into the White House, experts on electoral procedures are warning.

The voting technology deployed by most states around the country is now so antiquated and unreliable that it is in danger of breaking down at any time, the experts say. Some states are having to go on eBay to buy spare parts for machines that are no longer manufactured.

The extent of decay in America’s electoral infrastructure is laid bare in a new report from the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan institute at the New York University School of Law specializing in democracy and justice. Having consulted more than 100 voting specialists in all 50 states, the center concludes that the country is facing an impending crisis in the way it conducts elections.

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As Louisiana’s secretary of state Tom Schedler put it to an official hearing recently: “It’s getting a little scary out there.”

With the presidential election of November 2016 fast approaching, it is already very late in the cycle for states to be able to update their technology in time. Yet most states are operating voting machines that are perilously close to exceeding their sell-by-date, Brennan has found.

The center discovered that at least 31 states have recognized they need to buy new voting machines within the next five years, yet, of those, 22 said they had no idea how they were going to pay for them. The jurisdictions with equipment reaching the end of its natural lifespan cover about 40 million registered voters, and account for 387 of the 538 electoral college votes that decide the presidency.

In a further stark finding, Brennan found that 43 states are using machines that by election day next year will be at least 10 years old, while 14 states will have machines at least 15 years old. Bearing in mind that today’s iteration of voting equipment is computer-driven, the technology is aging fast. Lawrence Norden, co-author of the Brennan report, said that voting machines were no different from laptops in the sense that they rarely survived for 15 years. “That’s what we are seeing today with voting machines – we are reaching the end of their lifetime.”

Norden said that despite the nationwide scope of the problem, little was being invested in finding a solution. “No one is expressing any interest in paying for new machines. Congress has shown absolutely no interest in doing so.”

He went on: “We wouldn’t do this with anything else – you wouldn’t wait for your fire truck to breakdown before replacing it.”

The risks involved in conducting a presidential election with flakey technology in one of the globe’s largest and most complex democracies were amply displayed in 2000. The nail-bitingly close contest between Bush and Al Gore went down to the wire in Florida, where recounts were ordered because of failing paper-based punch machines.

The prolonged furore reached the US supreme court and introduced the world to arcane terminology such as “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots”. In the end, some 172,000 misvotes were recorded.

The supreme court ended the recounts in December 2000, which meant Florida’s votes went to Bush, handing him the election despite Gore’s 0.5% edge in the national popular vote.

In the wake of the national embarrassment over the election, most states moved to bring on a new generation of voting machines. That decision has, ironically, led to today’s pending crisis.

The machines that were bought after 2000 ran largely on 1990s computer designs, and unlike the sturdy manual machines they replaced, they were not built to last for decades. The new iteration of the voting machine is more complicated in its internal makeup, with more moving parts, making it less durable.

The Brennan Center study found several ways in which the machines were already ceasing to function properly. Some are simply crashing as their memory cards fail; others are recording inaccurate votes as the glue comes unstuck between the screen of the voting machine and the computer wiring behind it, putting the touch technology out of sync.

In a further alarming problem, the security protections on many of the older machines are inadequate, leaving them vulnerable to hacker attacks .

Remarkably, such difficulties are now cropping up again in Florida, where 30 out of the state’s 67 counties have been reported to have voting equipment in need of replacing by next year’s presidential election. The voting systems manager in Leon County, Florida, for example, had to look on eBay for a replacement analog modem for its machines that is no longer produced by the manufacturer.

As the supervisor of Polk County, Florida, Lori Edwards, colorfully told USA Today: “I feel like I’m driving around in a 10-year-old Ford Taurus … One of these days it’s not going to wake up.”

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Whatever the cause of the failures, equipment breakdown invariably has the same end result – it leads to delays and thus long lines at the polling stations. An authoritative study of the last presidential election in 2012 estimated that, as a result of long lines, up to 700,000 Americans were unable to cast their vote.

Lawrence Norden said that long lines underlined the danger of allowing the electoral infrastructure to crumble. “At the most basic level, this is a threat to our democracy. America prides itself as a beacon of democracy around the world, and yet we invest virtually nothing in getting it right.”