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Why do voting machines break on Election Day?

This article was originally published by The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom covering the ways technology is changing society. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to their newsletter here.

Between worries over a contested result and warnings of chaos come Nov. 3, it’s easy to get an ulcer wondering exactly what might happen in the days after the 2020 presidential election. Much of the current chatter centers on mail-in ballots, but millions of people will vote in person this year—and confidence that their votes will be accurately tallied by voting machines is critical.

Voting machines don’t have the best reputation, particularly since the “hanging chad” issue that left the 2000 presidential election undecided for 36 days. Electronic machines were supposed to solve those problems, but every election prompts fresh headlines about scary technology failures. Take the 2020 primaries—a possible preview of what we might see in November: “Coding mishaps” in Iowa; “broken machines” in Dallas and New York; “glitches” in L.A.; in parts of Georgia, voters waited as long as eight hours during the June 9 primary as poll workers wrestled with new voting equipment.

Such mishaps have real consequences. Long lines may stop people from voting and turn them off from participating in future elections. Studies also show Black and Latino voters are more likely to face long lines. And voters with disabilities can lose their right to a secret ballot if accessible voting machines don’t work as intended.

But how big a threat to our elections are “broken machines”? That vague and widely used phrasing actually covers a wide range of problems, from major software and hardware breakdowns to more mundane problems like poll workers forgetting to plug machines in. But voters should take some comfort: Most voting machine problems are minor, and with proper preparation, none should impair a fair election.

“Voting Machine” Failures Are Often Human Errors

Elections are complicated to run, but the most common issues with voting machines tend to be relatively simple, said Matt Bernhard, an election security researcher who observed elections in Georgia in 2018 and Mississippi in 2019 and worked as a technician during this March’s primary in Michigan.

“You know, it’s silly stuff,” he said. Take one Michigan election, when workers at a polling place cooked food throughout the day.

“They had one too many Crock-Pots, and they killed the precinct’s power just because it blew a circuit,” Bernhard said.

Electronic pollbooks, typically laptops or tablets connected to voter registration databases, are another frequent source of error, he said. In Georgia’s primary, Bernhard said, a poll worker mistakenly told a voter she was at the wrong polling place after putting the pollbook in statewide mode instead of precinct mode.

They had one too many Crock-Pots, and they killed the precinct’s power just because it blew a circuit. - Matt Bernhard, election security researcher

Touch screen failures, where a voter tries to select one candidate but somehow picks another, also produce some of the most disconcerting errors for voters; this “vote flipping” phenomenon often happens because poll workers neglected to calibrate the machines before voting started, Bernhard said.

A lawsuit filed against state and county election officials by Georgia’s Democratic Party in August cited more than three dozen instances of problems with voting equipment in elections going back to 2014. Most of the situations are not described in detail, but the details that do appear are banal: The internet went out, the printers had no paper, there weren’t enough electrical outlets. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss on September 9.

Any of these situations might be reported in the press as “broken machines,” Bernhard said.

Deeper Technical Issues Do Happen

In 2010, one precinct in the Bronx threw out an unusually high percentage of ballots due to voters marking more than one choice. State election officials investigated and found that the machines had added “phantom votes” in part because they were overheating. In 2014, 26 machines in Virginia Beach caused vote flipping because the glue in the screen had degraded. In 2006, complaints of vote flipping in North Little Rock, Arkansas, were diagnosed as an optical illusion experienced only by voters over six feet tall. A report by Los Angeles County, which unveiled a new voting system during its 2020 primary, concluded that 1,297 out of 23,104 voting machines, more than 5 percent, had faulty printers due to a “manufacturing defect.”

Voting machine vendors and election officials should be required to report issues with machines, said Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“There is no real central repository for design flaws in systems the way that there would be for automobiles,” he said, and some issues are never conclusively diagnosed.

“I still don’t know exactly what happened in Georgia in the primaries,” Norden said.

Cybersecurity experts have also repeatedly demonstrated vulnerabilities in voting systems that are in use across the country. In 2019, researchers at the DEF CON hacking conference in Las Vegas compromised more than 100 voting machines, all of which were certified for use in at least one jurisdiction at the time.

The good news is that most voters will vote in a way that generates a paper trail, which allows election officials to check that machines are recording votes correctly, Norden said.

Why Do These Problems Keep Happening?

Experts pointed to insufficient poll worker training, aging equipment, outdated federal standards, and a lack of competition in the industry as the main reasons voting machines go down.

The hundreds of thousands of poll workers critical to making voting happen are mostly temporary hires. They receive a crash course every year in election law and equipment in order to pull off a complex, high-stress, high-stakes event.

According to the lawsuit in Georgia, a precinct captain in Dekalb County during the 2020 primary said he received only “an introductory course” on how to use the equipment that did not include instruction on troubleshooting technical issues.

The voting systems themselves, which are essentially made up of computers, printers, and scanners, tend to be old.

The 2002 Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, inspired by the 2000 presidential election, created national standards for voting equipment and incentivized states to upgrade.

Many jurisdictions still use the now 20-year-old voting machines paid for with the more than $3 billion allotted through that act.

Experts also worry about a lack of innovation in the voting equipment market, which is dominated by three private firms—Election Systems and Software (ES&S), Dominion Voting Systems, and Hart InterCivic—splitting a relatively modest $300 million revenue every year, according to a report sponsored by the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative.

Certifying new equipment to meet state and federal guidelines can take years and cost millions, according to the report, deterring new companies from developing better products. Older vendors, though, are allowed to certify machines according to older, less rigorous standards.

Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing at Hart InterCivic, acknowledged that it’s rare to see new companies enter the space due to regulation and the fact that governments rarely buy new equipment, but he disputed the idea that the company is not innovative. Katina Granger, public relations manager for ES&S, said the company sees “robust competition in our marketplace every day.”

Dominion did not respond to a request for comment.

What Are Some Possible Solutions?

More funding and new federal guidelines would go a long way toward improving the voting experience, but there are some shorter-term solutions that could help.

Longer or more intensive poll worker training could help reduce the number of problems on Election Day.

The majority of poll workers are over 60, so experts expect some of the usual workers will stay home in the 2020 general election due to the risk of contracting COVID-19. Recruiting new poll workers could reduce some problems on Election Day, election officials said.

Some states have found ways to reduce the bottlenecks that happen when lots of people all go to vote at the same time. In Arizona voters can vote by mail or vote early, and many counties have “vote centers” that take voters from any precinct.

“If they’re waiting in a long line and something’s down and they don’t want to wait, they have the option to go to another location,” said Janine Petty, the state’s deputy elections director. Arizona doesn’t see a lot of issues with broken machines, she said.

Voting systems aren’t perfect, and that’s why there’s always a plan B, right? - Tina Barton, elections administrator, Rochester Hills, Michigan

Perhaps the best solution is to plan on things going wrong. Precincts should have a backup paper pollbook, plenty of paper ballots, and a lockbox for ballots that can’t be counted on the spot.

“Voting systems aren’t perfect, and that’s why there’s always a plan B, right?” said Tina Barton, the city clerk and elections administrator for Rochester Hills, Michigan.

She recalled how during the March primary, the corner of a voter’s ballot tore off and jammed the scanner. Standard procedure kicked in: Voters dropped their ballots into a locked compartment in the machine. Barton brought over a spare machine, and two poll workers, a Republican and a Democrat, oversaw the transfer of votes from the jammed machine to the new one. A technician arrived shortly after and repaired the jammed machine on site so that it could be deployed again if needed. No votes were lost, and voters were only delayed by a few minutes, Barton said—and if they hadn’t been able to replace the machine, the ballots from the auxiliary bin would have been hand-counted at the board of canvassers.

But a nervous voter still called her office because someone had posted on a neighborhood social network that a machine was “down.”

Which leads to another lesson: Don’t panic. “I think it’s important just to remind voters that they should go to trusted news sources,” she said. “And if they see information like that on social media to please contact their local election officials for confirmation.”