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Expect more long lines to vote until aging machines are replaced, say experts

Traditionally, election systems were a local responsibility, but high price tags and growing cyber threats have made it hard for authorities to keep up.

Expect more long lines to vote until aging machines are replaced, say experts
[Photo: Flickr user Mark Gunn]

While the midterm elections appear to have avoided any major problems with foreign interference, voters and poll monitoring groups across the country reported hours-long lines, unexpected delays in opening polling places, and technical issues with voting machines.

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“We received reports quite quickly on election day of a number of polling sites in Harris County, which is the home of Houston, of polling sites not only not being open at 7 a.m. but of significant delays,” says James Slattery, senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, which won a court order keeping polls open late at locations with delayed openings.

In New York, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called upon Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan to resign after widespread delays, some attributed to problems with ballot scanning equipment. And elsewhere, technical issues and other problems led to extensive backlogs of voters that sometimes made it a challenge for people with job and family obligations to cast their ballots, says Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. More than 31,000 voters from around the country contacted the group’s Election Protection hotline about potential voting issues, she says.

“In South Carolina and Georgia, we certainly saw long lines in a number of parts of the state, some of which extended as long as three or four hours in length,” she says.

In Georgia, those voting machine problems only served to fan distrust in Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who as secretary of state was also the state’s highest election official. (He formally resigned the office on Thursday after claiming victory, though many news organizations still say it’s too close to call.)

“It’s like using a laptop from 2002”

Experts say it’s not surprising that technical problems popped up at polling places—after all, many states and local jurisdictions are still running systems purchased under the federal Help America Vote Act, a law passed by Congress in 2002 in wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

“We have been seeing voting machine malfunctions across the country in this election because many, many jurisdictions in the United States have voting systems that are old and outdated,” says Jamila Benkato, counsel at the nonprofit group Protect Democracy. “It’s like using a laptop from 2002 in the year 2018.”

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Replacing old election equipment is ultimately a “matter of national security,” she argues, since many older systems aren’t just subject to mechanical failures but also to cybersecurity threats.

“We think that replacing and upgrading these systems is a fundamental necessity if we want to have a fully functioning democracy,” she says.

The trouble is that while Congress did appropriate $380 million in March to help states bolster election security, that’s not enough to replace all that aging voting equipment, including touchscreen machines still in use in many states that only store votes digitally. Those are especially worrisome to many security experts, since there’s no paper trail to recount if the machine malfunctions or gets hacked.

Traditionally, elections have mostly been the purview of state and local officials, and they’ve been wary of too much federal interference, such as when then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson declared election systems to be part of the nation’s critical infrastructure early last year.

But many local and even state governments don’t have room in their budgets to replace existing machines, with new equipment often costly and only available from a handful of vendors. They also aren’t all created equal in terms of training election staff and managing infrastructure issues that can snarl voting lines and frustrate voters.

“They’re all approaching this in their own unique way, and some are operating by the best standards available in using the best equipment and good about training, and there are other states that are falling woefully behind,” says Clarke.

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Nor do many election officials have the cybersecurity expertise to thwart potential hacking attempts from heavily funded overseas adversaries, like the Russian hackers who allegedly tried to access voter rolls and other systems leading up to the 2016 election.

Ultimately, getting the nation’s electoral systems set for the rest of the 21st century may take Congressional action.

“Free and fair elections needs to be seen as something that’s a national defense-type issue and needs to be dealt with accordingly,” says Mike O’Malley, vice president of strategy at cybersecurity firm Radware. “Are we putting our best foot forward if we’re asking thousands of local election clerks to stand up against nation state-sponsored attacks?”

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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