We have less than five months before the primary voting begins and, perhaps more to the point, less than 14 until the general election. The clock is ticking for the candidates, of course, but it’s also counting down for the infrastructure which will handle the tedious chore of counting all the votes. In many states, election officials are taking a very worried look at the no longer newfangled electronic voting machines which were put in place after the hanging chad debacle of the 2000 election and finding them unready for the task. (Politico)

When Americans head to the polls for next year’s presidential election, 43 states will be using electronic voting machines that are at least a decade old, according to a new study from New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice released Tuesday. And the price tag for replacement machines could top $1 billion…

“No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. How can we expect these machines, many of which were designed and engineered in the 1990s, to keep running without increased failures?” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Center’s Democracy Program, and co-author of the study, in a statement. “Old equipment can have serious security flaws, and the longer we delay purchasing new machines, the higher the risk. To avoid a new technology crisis every decade, we must plan for and invest in voting technology for the 21st century.”

The biggest risk in waiting, the study found, is that machines will continue to fail and malfunction, increasing lines at the voting booth and causing a crisis in confidence in the voting system.

I was at least somewhat enthusiastic about the idea (if not the implementation) of electronic voting machines more than a decade ago, but I’ve lost most of my appetite for them since then. The old lever style voting machines we used to use here in New York actually lasted for decades on end with relatively simple, low cost maintenance to keep them in service. They didn’t report the results instantly, but they did report them accurately and they could be rechecked after the fact. There were other primarily mechanical systems which worked pretty well also.

When we moved to electronic machines around the nation I was dismayed over the designs which were approved in too many cases. Some had no paper trail at all which could be tied directly to the voter in case of questions. Others, like the ones used at my precinct now, have a paper ballot to feed into an optical scanner, but it never shows you your choices so you can confirm that they were correctly recorded. There’s just a dull “thunk” sound after you feed the ballot in and you’re sent on your way. To say the least, my confidence in such a system when it’s being run by New York State is not high.

But perhaps worst of all is the phenomenon of hacking which has permeated every level of government over the past several years. How confident are we that nobody has been hacking into these electronic voting systems? And when, if ever, would we find out if it did happen? When you add into that the idea that a computerized voting machine goes out of date as fast as a laptop and that some of them are likely to simply fail when called upon next year, this may be a bigger crisis than the original problem which spurred us to adopt the technology. This is going to be expensive to fix and we likely don’t have time to improve the system to address all the issues I raised above, but we’re probably still going to have to do something. Once the public loses confidence in the integrity of the system you are on the steep end of the slippery slope in terms of the democracy.