America's Looming Crisis in Voting Technology

The nation’s voting equipment is quickly becoming obsolete. But even if local governments could afford upgrades, no new machines exist to buy.

More and more often these days, Neal Kelley and his staff find themselves rooting through shelves at used computer stores in Orange County, Calif., looking for something they can’t find anywhere else: laptops that run on Windows 2000. Kelley is the registrar of voters in Orange County, and one component of his election equipment still runs on the Microsoft operating system from 14 years ago.

As in most places around the country, Orange County’s voting technology is based on federal standards set after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. The razor-thin presidential election in 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush revealed that outdated technology had left thousands of votes uncounted. With HAVA, Congress encouraged local governments to install electronic voting equipment, resulting in a wave of upgrades across the country. Between 2002 and 2004, Congress allocated more than $3 billion for some 8,000 local jurisdictions to replace the punch card devices and lever machines they had been using for more than 30 years. But today, a decade later, that upgraded election infrastructure is quickly becoming obsolete.

In a worst-case scenario, current equipment will start to fail in the next couple years, forcing fewer voting booths to process more ballots, a recipe for longer lines and voter frustration. “What you don’t want is disenfranchised voters who are deciding not to cast a ballot because of these issues,” says Kelley. “We can’t let ourselves get to that point. We need to be ahead of this curve.”

It’s an impending crisis for states and localities. “Jurisdictions do not have the money to purchase new machines,” the Presidential Commission on Election Administration reported in January, “and legal and market constraints prevent the development of machines they would want even if they had the funds.” In other words, the newer technology simply isn’t there. And even if it were, localities couldn’t afford it.