Sunday, January 24, 2016

How America's Obsolete Voting Machines Could Spark An Election Crisis in 2016

by Nomad

Without a drastic overhaul of America's antiquated voting machines, we could face a major electoral crisis in the 2016 presidential race.

A Question of Legitimacy

One of the more pernicious effects of a politically-split nation is the very real possibility that- no matter what the outcome of the elections- one side will claim the results were rigged. In this event, half the country could simply refuse to respect the legitimacy of the political system and the leader that emerges. We have come awfully close to this dreaded situation already.

Anything that encourages doubts about the validity of the election must be investigated and amended, prior to the election. Afterward, any solution comes too late.

There've been plenty of warnings in the past that the voting machine crisis was looming. Practically since their inception,  the use of voting machines have raised plenty of doubts about the reliability. Many claimed that the machines were too easy to rig, with too many opportunities to manipulate the results. Those charges come not just from the so-called tin-foil hat brigade but from highly qualified experts.

Even if one puts aside the conspiracy theories, there are still problems with the use of voting machines. Last year, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law noted many polling places nationwide are out of date. The report also pointed out that replacement parts are difficult to find for these machines because of their age.   

Still worse, many states legislatures have not allocated the funding to replace the aging voting machines. while elections officials in 31 states stated a desire to purchase new machines, 22 of them also said they "did not know where they would get the money to pay for them."

By the 2016 election, machines in 43 states will be at least 10 years old, according to a report byBrennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. Fourteen states will have machines that are at least 15 years old.
In the computer world, that's ancient as the pyramids. The average expected lifespan for a desktop PC - which is the heart of an electronic voting machine- is only 4.6 years.

Killing Federal Voting Standards

One researcher pointed out that the  many of the voting machines still in service were actually purchased with funding from the Help America Vote of 2002 (HAVA).

The chief aim of HAVA was to creating mandatory minimum election process standards for states.  The law also provided funding to help the states meet those standards, which included replacing voting systems and voting machines.

In addition, HAVA established the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to assist the states regarding HAVA compliance and to distribute HAVA funds to the states.  Another responsibility of EAC was to create voting system guidelines and operate the federal government's first voting system certification program.

In that regard, EAC plays a key role in the legitimizing voting machines in participating states through certification of  voting system hardware and software.  Prior to this, there had been no federal responsibility for maintaining such a standard. It was by no means fool-proof. States were not required to participate in the program.

In 2013, the House of Representatives introduced H.R. 1994, a move to terminate EAC altogether. Sponsored by Republican representative for Mississippi's 3rd congressional district Gregg Harper, the motion claimed that EAC has completed its work, had gone over budget and was "bureaucracy in search of a mission."

That bill died but the draft legislation, like Lazarus in his crypt, was revived in January of this year. 
Harper and other Republicans were particularly dismayed, however, when the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill included funding for EAC.
“They’re trying to justify their own existence and it’s time for them to go. I’m sure there are some fine people who work there, but this is an agency that is no longer necessary.’’

The Sorry State of Voting Machines in the South

Brennan Center report noted that  the problem of aging voting machines is especially pressing in the South. The Institute for Southern Studies reports that:
Across the South, all election jurisdictions in three states — Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina — purchased their voting machines in 2006 or earlier. In seven Southern states — Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia — the majority of election jurisdictions purchased machines in 2006 or earlier.
Coincidentally, all of these states are Red States.
Of the 14 states across the country using machines that are 15 or more years old, four are found in the South: Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia. 
Of those states, two are considered swing states, Florida and Virginia, and the outcomes of those states could determine who the next president will be.

For the already disgruntled voter, there's more than enough to allege a conspiracy to rig the election. Old machines without replacement parts will inevitably break down, leading to long lines and long delays. For working class people, that's another headache. It's far easier to walk away from the polling office.

The Brennan report also noted that the high cost of replacing older machines impacted counties with lower median incomes — likely smaller, rural areas. "leaving voters in those counties with a higher chance of experiencing problems on election day."
According to one study, an estimated 500,000-700,000 people were unable to vote in 2012 election due to long lines.
Added to that is another particular problem that antiquated machines often produce.  
Touch screen machines that are wearing down can cause “flipped votes,” where the voter hits one name, but the machine records another.
That right there would make voting pointless.

An Approaching Crisis?

According to the Brennan report, the cost of replacing all of the out-of-date machines nationwide would run at least $1 billion.
That's a number that could make an austerity-minded conservative swoon. But let's put that into the proper perspective.

Top fundraisers say that, at an estimated $5 billion dollars, the 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be the most expensive one in US history. If there are suspicions of a rigged election due to faulty voting machines, the entire election process will be written off as incredible farce.
When you think about all the money being spent on presidential campaigns, it's inexcusable that Congress hasn't worked harder to and states have not done more to ensure that the results are a credible reflection of the will of the people.

As staggering as these figures are, we also have to ask: what are the costs of not guaranteeing a fair election?

That's a critical question and the answer has a lot to do with voter psychology. After all, a sense of election legitimacy underpins the entire democratic process and any reasonable doubt in the system could force a constitutional crisis.
It could boil down to whether voters would actually accept another dubious outcome like the presidential election of 2000, which was eventually decided by the Supreme Court ruling.

When so many people, who even now are seething at what they see at a broken-down system of governance that has disenfranchised large swathes of the population, there's also the potential for something even worse to happen.
It would perhaps be more economical to scrap the electronic voting machines altogether and return to a paper ballot. That old fashioned system seemed to work well enough in the past.
Even today elections are carried out without voting machines in many countries, all of which have a much lower GDP than the US with candidates willing to spend far less on their endless campaigns.