man using touchscreen voting machine (Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock.com)

States struggle to upgrade aging voting equipment

State and federal officials are worried that obsolete voting equipment may be putting state election infrastructure at risk.

At an Oct. 24 meeting of the Congressional Task Force on Election Security Forum, Election Assistance Commission Commissioner Thomas Hicks, called aging voting equipment "one of the biggest vulnerabilities I see right now."  Some states are using 15-year-old machines that are at the end of their lifecycles and don't have resources to buy new equipment, Hicks said.

Concerns about aging equipment are heightened because of reports from the Department of Homeland Security that Russian hackers targeted voting systems in 21 states.

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said that when she took office in 2015, "our equipment was on the brink of total failure.” It was only after a nearly $10 million investment in optical scan voting machines, along with "key advice and counsel" from EAC, that the equipment was fully modernized and properly secured ahead of the 2016 election.

But even if a state has all the necessary equipment, she added, human talent is still badly needed. "Investments in hardware and software cannot be used effectively if government doesn't have the human resources that can manage and operate them," she said, adding that state-level officials are "ill-prepared to handle the threat."

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) asked if Congress should hold the companies selling the equipment to a higher standard. "Should we be demanding more from elections-related vendors?" she asked. "To what extent is the next generation of election-related products ... being built with cybersecurity in mind?"

Edgardo Cortés, Virginia Department of Elections Commissioner said vendors could be doing more on that front. When it comes to older equipment, "security, if it was thought about at all, was really an afterthought," he said. "There are some baseline standards we can look at and incorporate." In September, Cortés’s department decertified touchscreen voting machines in Virginia.

Gorbea said she favored security requirements for vendors at the federal level.

"We in Rhode Island could not come up with as good and as fast a process for what the EAC already had with regards to general voting equipment guidelines," she said.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Ben Berliner is an editorial fellow at FCW. He is a 2017 graduate of Kenyon College, and has interned at the Center for Responsive Politics and at Sunlight Foundation.

He can be contacted at bberliner@fcw.com.

Click here for previous articles by Berliner.


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