A revitalized federal commission on election oversight invites public input just as a major national study predicts massive problems in 2016 because of outmoded election tabulation software.

The much-embattled and belittled U.S. Election Assistance Commission wants public comments to help guide its work following appointment in January of three commissioners and renewed funding after GOP congressional critics sought to shut it down.

U.S. Election Assistance Commission logoMeanwhile, U.S. localities face a crisis in tabulating votes accurately and securely because many of them are using outdated software that can fail or even be hacked. That’s according to America’s Voting Technology Crisis, a study by the Brennan Center, which announced its findings last month at the National Press Cluband in an Atlantic Magazine article.

"The 2016 campaign is already underway, with nearly two dozen candidates vying to be the next president," wrote study co-authors Lawrence Norden and Christopher Famighetti. "Americans may have no idea who they will vote for next year, but they are likely confident that when they show up at the polls, their votes will count. And for the vast majority, of course, they will. But with rapidly aging voting technology, the risk of machines failing is greater than it has been in many years."

This column is part of the Justice Integrity Project's extensive coverage of election-tampering strategies. These include both the kinds of financial and technology snafus decried by the Brennan Center and also the more partisan if not sinister plans by elections operatives to thwart wins by the opposition.

Democrats emphasize restrictions on registration and access to polls, including limits on voting hours and absentee ballots. Republicans claim "voting fraud" of ineligible voters casting ballots, thereby justifying tighter restrictions.

Independent analysts, including our JIP, allege also that polling and election tabulation software have been corrupted at key locales and times to swing important elections. My 2013 book Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters (revised and updated this month) summarizes the compelling evidence for such corrupt practices while noting also the reasons why the Election Assistance Commission, similar authorities, the major political parties, and the mainstream media (including foundations) are extremely reluctant to probe the evidence.

Indeed, Congress failed to name any members of the EAC for years and withheld funding, thereby thwarting its original mission upon its creation in 2002 of helping states administer honest elections.

Therefore, the reconstituted EAC's invitation for public input ideally enables more focus on the full range of threats to fair elections. This would go beyond those problems that a politically fragile federal body is likely to probe — or even the important dangers that the Brennan Center has been highlighting. 

Today's column is a news analysis (rather like our report last spring on the success of Nigeria's election due to vigorous anti-fraud measures) and our overview of election fraud allegations, first published in 2011 and since updated.

Backgrounder: Election Assistance Administration

As summarized by a Wikipedia entry and news reports:

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is an independent agency of the United States government created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). The Commission serves as a national clearinghouse and resource of information regarding election administration. It is charged with administering payments to states and developing guidance to meet HAVA requirements, adopting voluntary voting system guidelines, and accrediting voting system test laboratories and certifying voting equipment. It is also charged with developing and maintaining a national mail voter registration form.

History: The HAVA dictates the EAC will create voluntary guidelines for voting systems, maintaining a clearinghouse of information regarding election administration procedures including testing and certification of election equipment, and administering the Election Assistance and Help America Vote Programs. In 2003, Congress appropriated US$1.5 billion for HAVA. In 2010, the EAC lost its quorum of Commissioners, preventing many normal operational duties, and bills were subsequently drafted to end the Commission. Specifically, United States Representative Gregg Harper introduced a bill to end the EAC and transfer some of its authority to the Federal Election Commission. On 16 December 2014, the U.S. Senate confirmed three Commissioners (Thomas Hicks, Matthew V. Masterson, and Christy A. McCormick), giving the EAC back the quorum of Commissioners it needs to operate.

Hicks and Masterson attended the Brennan Center forum Sept. 17 at the National Press Club. They noted that the ECA welcome public input on what the EAC should be doing. The commission's site for comments is here, although few topics are currently open for feedback aside from the section on grants.

Brennan Center Report

The Brennan Center report focused on budget and technology challenges facing local officials, not the half dozen or so more partisan controversies of voter fraud, vote restriction, and vote tabulation tampering.

"In a close election," the Brennan Center authors Norden and Christopher Famighetti, "the performance of that old equipment will come under a microscope. Fifteen years after a national election trauma in Florida that was caused in significant measure by obsolete voting equipment — including hanging chads and butterfly ballots — it may be hard for many Americans to believe that the U.S. could face such a crisis again. But unless the right precautions are taken today and in the coming months and years, there is a significant risk that the story on Election Day will be less about who won or lost, and more about how voting systems failed."

The looming crisis in America’s voting technology was first brought to national attention last year by President Obama’s bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), which offered a stern warning about the “widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago.” Over the past 10 months, the Brennan Center, where we work, surveyed more than 100 specialists familiar with voting technology, including machine vendors, independent technology experts, and election officials in all 50 states, to study how widespread this looming crisis really was.

We found bad news and good. First, the bad: The problem of aging voting technology reaches nearly every corner of the United States. Unlike voting machines used in past eras, today’s systems were not designed to last for decades. In part this is due to the pace of technological change. No one expects a laptop to last 10 years. And although today’s machines debuted at the beginning of this century, many were designed and engineered in the 1990s.

"Even worse," they continued, "while many jurisdictions acknowledge that their machines need to be replaced, they haven’t sorted out who should pay for it. Counties often argue the states should pay, while many states argue this has always been a local responsibility. In many cases, both hold out hope that they can get some federal support, but that seems very unlikely. “Some jurisdictions seem to be saying we’re just going to wait until another catastrophe and then maybe Congress will pay for it,” Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser with the Bipartisan Policy Center, told us. “This is not a good plan.”

On the other hand, the PCEA’s report spurred conversations, and in many cases, spending on new equipment. Several counties and states will have new machines before the 2016 election, and some counties are even developing their own voting systems, which offer the hope of technology that is designed around the needs of voters.

While it is impossible to say how long any particular machine will last, experts agree that for machines purchased since 2000, the expected lifespan for the core components of electronic voting machines is generally between 10 and 15 years. The majority of machines in use in the United States are perilously close to or exceed these estimates. In 43 states, the oldest machines will be at least 10 years old next November. In 14 states they will be more than 15 years old.

Separately, the Brennan Center has advocated for Voter Registration Modernization, which it describes as a comprehensive plan to automatically register every eligible American to vote. "It would update our country’s outdated and error-prone voting system, which blocks millions of eligible citizens from the polls. Research shows the policy could add up to 50 million eligible voters while saving money, increasing efficiency and accuracy, and curbing the potential for fraud." The center described its plan as having four components:

  1. It requires states to adopt electronic systems and take responsibility for registering citizens so they are automatically added to the voter rolls when they interact with government agencies.
  2. It makes sure that once citizens are signed up, they remain registered when they move within their states.
  3. It allows citizens to register to vote online.
  4. Finally, it gives people the opportunity to register or update their information at the polls.

What's Next?

As the 2016 elections draw closer, our project will continue to report on major developments.

In the meantime, excerpted below are two of our previous reports, each containing extensive background. DC Experts Hail Historic Nigerian Elections As Success, But Note Challenges Ahead reported on the innovations that helped bring widespread internal and global praise to Nigerians for what was generally regarded as a successful presidential election and succession last April under difficult conditions.  Cutting Through Hype, Hypocrisy of Vote Fraud Claims was our 2011 backgrounder, since updated, documenting the menace of electronic voting machine tampering.

Estimates are that parties, candidates and "independent" committees will spend more than two billion dollars on the 2016 elections. So, it's worth examining early and often how they can be conducted fairly. The column above about an academic study and small federal agency with less than modest clout may seem out of keeping our usual fare on this site, which often focuses upon political scandal and even  crime. Yet there is no contradiction. All things are possible when the stakes are high.

On a more hopeful note, a Gallup survey of some 190 nations announced last year indicated that residents of Nigeria self-evaluated their nation as one of the world's most corrupt, including in government practices. Nonetheless, they worked hard to hold a highly regarded election transferring power to a reform administration, according to both local and international evaluators. Yes, all things are possible.