(Reuters/Hans Deryk)

The looming threat to democracy: How congressional inaction could put your vote at risk in 2016

If lawmakers don't do something soon, 2016 could be a repeat of 2000, Brennan Center for Justice expert tells Salon


Elias Isquith
September 22, 2015 3:59PM (UTC)

If there's a single photograph that people most associate with the 2012 election, it's probably this one, which shows Barack Obama and Michelle Obama embracing and quickly went viral once the election had been called in the president's favor. It's an optimistic photo, capturing a moment of supreme validation being shared by the first African-American president and first lady in U.S. history. It's easy to see why it was so popular.

There's another kind of image that's distinctively 2012, however, and it's not nearly as up-lifting. It's an image, like this one or this one, showing an exceedingly long line of people waiting to exercise their right to vote. When you look at these photos, you tend to notice two things. One, that for a country often accused of political apathy, a surprising number of people are willing to wait a long time to cast their single, relatively insignificant vote; and two, that most of the people in the most discouragingly long lines are Latino or African-American.

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While most Americans hope that the first photograph is more indicative of their country's future, a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, titled "America’s Voting Machines at Risk," suggests that it's the second batch of photographs that best depict what's to come. Because despite it being more than 10 years since a lack of attention to the mechanics of voting in Florida (arguably) determined the president, it looks like the U.S., the world's oldest constitutional democracy, is once again sleepwalking into an election for which it's unprepared. Last time it was hanging chads; this time, it may be frozen screens.

Recently, Salon spoke with the Brennan Center's Lawrence Norden, one of the report's co-authors, on why voting machines in the U.S. may pose a big problem in the coming election. We also discussed what policymakers can do to address the "crisis" before it happens; and why a failure to act could further exacerbate the inequality that has increasingly come to define American society. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

So in some ways this report is a follow-up to research done by the presidential commission, right? 

Yes. In 2014, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which President Obama set up after the 2012 election, issued a report that looked at the challenges facing election administration going forward. This was in part of the reaction that there were such long lines in the 2012 election. That report identified a number of ways that we could improve elections in the United States. Its last finding was identified as a looming crisis, and that was aging voting equipment. Since that time, we’ve been hearing more from election officials, about the fact that there is this pending crisis.

And what is this pending crisis?

This study was meant to be a comprehensive look at how old [voting] machines are, how close they are to their end of lifespan, and what they might mean for our elections.

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What we found was more trouble than I expected. It is a really far-reaching problem. In 2016, 43 states will be using electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old; 14 states will be using machines that are at least 15 years old. The projected life span for systems that have been purchased around 2000 (which is most systems used in the country) is about 10-15 years. So, we really are reaching the end of the useful life span for these systems.

If a voting machine crisis happens, what will it look like? Long lines? Votes being awarded incorrectly or not at all?

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We’ve started to see a little bit of this in 2012 and 2014, as these machines age out; and if we don’t replace the machines, it’s only going to get worse as time goes onThere’s a Harvard/MIT study that came out after the 2012 election that said between 500,000 and 700,000 people weren’t able to vote because of long lines. And some of that was caused because of the aging equipment.

What is being done to replace these machines, nationwide?

There seems to be not nearly enough action or funding. Congress has given no indication that it is going to be providing financial support to counties and states to replace this equipment that has been aging out. We found statements from election officials in 31 states saying that they were going to need to replace their equipment either before this next election or soon after; 22 of those states said they didn’t know where they would get the money.

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What about within the states themselves? Are they solving this problem in Congress' absence?

We see the same thing when we look at individual states. The Association of Ohio County Elections surveyed their members; 25 counties said they needed to replace their machines, either before the 2016 election or soon after. Only five of those counties said they had the money to pay for that. It’s a massive problem in terms of the lack of funding and the consequences.

Are the consequences of inaction going to be felt by everyone? Or will certain communities likely suffer more than others?

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It’s not distributed evenly. Within states, a number of election officials have made a point that counties with resources are going ahead and buying [new] machines when the [old ones] start falling apart. The counties that don’t have resources are just trying to make do.

The first person to make this point while we were doing our interviews was the elections commissioner in Virginia, who pointed out that Fairfax and Loudon counties, which are among the wealthiest counties in the state, have purchased new equipment. The smaller counties — the poorer, often rural counties — could not afford to buy new machines.

He was right. We looked at it, and the difference in average median income in counties that purchased machines versus those that didn’t purchase machines was about $20,000. It was pretty dramatic.

Was that disparity found only in Virginia? Or did you see it other places, too?

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We looked at Minnesota and saw the same $20,000 difference. In Ohio, [for] those counties that have the money to purchase new machines and say they need it, there’s about a $15,000 difference between them and those who don’t have money to purchase new equipment.

That’s a relatively small sample but the fact that it matches so closely to what we’re hearing from election officials from all around the country, to me, it’s confirmation that there’s a danger that we’re going to increasingly see at a two-tiered election system.

What do you mean by "two-tiered"?

If you happen to live in a county with the resources, you can vote on new machines; and if you don’t, you’re going to be voting on machines that are more likely to break down and cause long lines.

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Is either party taking this issue seriously?

There hasn’t been much seriousness from either party when dealing with this.  I don’t think I can make a distinction by political party.

At the congressional level, there just hasn’t been a lot of conversation about it. There have been people, like Sen. Barbara Boxer, who have said there should be a minimum number of machines and poll workers in every polling place around the country. But I don’t think either party, on a national level, has taken this issue on with the urgency that it deserves. Neither party in Congress seems to have much of an appetite for this.

What's a realistic solution, if and when Congress and the country starts to pay attention?

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Longer term, I think we have to work out how to fund our elections, so that we’re not lurching from one crisis to another. I think there’s a lot that states can do and a lot that Congress can do to make sure we have fair, accurate elections. That should not be too much to ask.

One of the things that I think is really telling is that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to support democracy abroad and elections abroad. But, on the federal level anyway, we don’t spend nearly that much to ensure that our elections are working at home. And people have the right to demand that if we’re a beacon to the rest of the world, and we take that [job] seriously, we make sure our elections work.

In terms of getting ahead of the problem before November 2016, is it already too late?

It may be too late for individual jurisdictions to purchase new equipment; if suddenly you decided you wanted to buy new equipment tomorrow for 2016, it certainly would be tough; if you hadn’t done the planning, it’s never great to unveil the equipment for the first time at a high-turnout presidential election. There are all kinds of complications the first time you’re rolling out new equipment. But, overall, it’s definitely not too late.

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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