State needs new voting machines, advocates say

 

Jennifer Hill of Common Cause for Delaware speaks about the importance of up grading voting machines. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — It’s Nov. 6, 2018. Election Day. More than 100,000 Delaware voters have already cast their ballots with just one hour until polls close when suddenly the state’s election system goes down.

Software experts are able to quickly restore it, but it’s too late: All the votes have been wiped out. The system failure has invalidated votes all across the state, and now the integrity of the election is at stake.

While unlikely, this scenario is possible, and it’s a big part of the reason why advocacy groups are urging state officials to fund the purchase of new voting machines.

Delaware has about 1,600 Danaher ELECTronic 1242 voting machines, purchased in 1995. Those machines were state of the art 22 years ago, but they’re now outdated and, according to some, in desperate need of replacement.

“We need a voting system that inspires public trust,” said Jennifer Hill.

Ms. Hill, the executive director of Common Cause Delaware, was one of several people who spoke Thursday at a news conference that preceded a meeting of the task force responsible for researching new machines.

Along with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, Delaware Alliance for Community Advancement, League of Women Voters and Sierra Club, Ms. Hill called for lawmakers to set aside funding for upgraded machines.

Delaware’s current machines do not have a voter-verified paper audit trail, making the state one of just five nationwide without a paper trail, according to the Delaware Alliance for Community Advancement.

This isn’t news to Delaware’s election commissioner.

That commissioner, Elaine Manlove, previously requested lawmakers create a task force to help the Department of Elections select a vendor (or vendors) for the new machines.

The group was supposed to send its recommendations to the General Assembly by March. However, the panel did not begin meeting until then, with the change in gubernatorial administrations, as well as a February special election for the state Senate, delaying the start.

Ms. Manlove had hoped the new machines would be purchased and set up in time for the 2018 election, but it is now clear that’s too soon. That means 2020, a presidential election, will likely be the first big test for the new voting machines.

The League of Women Voters’ Sandy Spence, right, calls for lawmakers to fund new voting machines. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Ms. Manlove is aiming to release a request for proposal by the end of the year asking companies to bid on new voting machines. Once the state receives responses, the task force will issue recommendations to the General Assembly, although that won’t be until 2018.

“The software is already unsupported and every year, every month that goes by, the possibility of a system crashing” grows, ACLU of Delaware Executive Director Kathleen MacRae said.

Security is also an issue.

Russia has been accused of attempting to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 presidential election through hacking. While that might conjure up images of hackers literally altering vote totals, that’s not the case. However, some voter databases across the country were accessed, according to media reports.

Because of the threat of hacking, the security of things like cloud storage must be considered by officials when seeking a new election system.

While Ms. Manlove said Thursday she would be interested in placing all voting machines in state buildings, allowing officials to connect them to the state’s wireless network, practical concerns make that unlikely, as many Delawareans do not live close to state facilities.

A new system would cost about $15 million to $25 million, Ms. Hill estimated.

While that may be a hefty sum for lawmakers who dealt with a budget gap this year and are expecting a similar problem next year, Ms. Manlove is among those who believes decision-makers need to find the money.

“We really haven’t asked for funding for anything in a long time,” the election commissioner said.

One aspect she’s especially interested in is electronic poll books, which can speed up the voting process. E-pol books, which the National Conference of State Legislatures says are in use in 32 other states, can allow a poll worker to scan a voter’s driver’s license and bring up his or her information. The books can also be used to easily report who voted and can provide real-time updates online if connected to the internet.

Updated voting machines are necessary for things like same-day voter registration and early voting, which the current system cannot handle. While those two policies would have to be put in place by the General Assembly, the state currently lacks the infrastructure to implement them.

Delaware has not experienced any catastrophic failures, but “there was no problem until there was a problem” in Florida, Ms. Hill said in reference to the controversial 2000 election. Some voters found the layout of ballots in Palm Beach County to be confusing, and the state began a recount of ballots before it was stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are many considerations to be made in purchasing new machines, such as whether they should be bought or leased, but speakers at Thursday’s news conference are seeking one thing above all else: machines that are the “best that money can buy in order to protect the security and integrity of our voting system,” said Sandy Spence with the League of Women Voters.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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