Over the last year or so, we’ve seen numerous states address the challenge of aging voting technology – and the need to fund upgrades. Last week, two key leaders in the nation’s most populous state – California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley, also president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials – co-authored an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury-News calling on the Golden State to meet the issue head-on:
A threat to California elections is on the horizon. California voting equipment is near its life expectancy. Our diligent upkeep of these aging systems should minimize risk in the 2016 elections, but California must modernize our voting equipment for future elections.
Most of us remember the 2000 presidential election that concluded with the United States Supreme Court settling the Bush v. Gore legal battle. Remember the butterfly ballots and hanging chads? Many believe the aging voting systems in Florida were responsible for the crisis.
In response, Congress acted in a bipartisan manner to pass the Help America Vote Act that provided funding to modernize voting systems in all 50 states.
That was more than 13 years ago, and we are back where we started with aging voting systems that may fail.
A voting system isn’t just what you use to mark your ballot. It includes the tallying machines and other equipment county registrars of voters use to conduct an election. In California, we have 58 counties. Any one of them could run into problems.
We are quickly approaching a crossroads, and investments must be made. The chances of a gridlocked Congress allocating funding now are slim, and crossing our fingers isn’t a plan.
California counties alone cannot bear the financial burden of purchasing the new systems. They need state help. Our voting systems were designed and engineered in the 1990s. We wouldn’t settle for 20-year old technology and reliability in our cell phones and computers; our voting systems should be no different.
We realize that drawing attention to this impending crisis could undermine voter confidence, but it is our responsibility. This problem will not fix itself.
The President’s Commission on Election Administration issued a report two years ago that included this passage: “Perhaps the most dire warning the Commission heard in its investigation concerned the impending crisis in voting technology. Well-known to election administrators, if not the public at large, this impending crisis arises from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago …”
In September of 2015, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice also issued a report, “America’s Voting Machines at Risk.” It raised concerns including the failure of equipment to work as intended and the difficulty of finding replacement parts for machines that are no longer manufactured.
The Brennan Center report points out that many voting systems rely on software that is out of date, making it impossible to find hardware that is compatible with the antiquated operating systems.
New equipment is an undeniable priority. It goes without saying that elections are a government responsibility that must be funded. Their integrity is fundamental to our democratic form of government.
The best path forward is for our state and our 58 counties to work together to craft a funding solution. [emphasis added]
It is up to county elections officials to acquire or develop voting systems at the best price. They must be compliant with federal and state laws that require a fully accessible voting experience for all individuals, particularly those with disabilities.
With Congress stuck in partisan gridlock, California is on its own. We must commit to a plan and provide ongoing funding to ensure that our elections are reliable and secure — that every vote is counted and every ballot accounted for. California voters require it and our democracy demands it.
That highlighted sentence could be the way forward on the other funding issue that has bedeviled the local election officials for years: outstanding state unfunded election mandates to the counties. California is considering numerous changes to its election system, including adopting its own version of the Colorado “ballot delivery” model – and tying such changes to a steady source and amount of funding could address the lingering mandate issue as well.
This op-ed doesn’t guarantee passage of any of those changes, but it is powerful evidence of a key partnership between state and local election officials in California on this vital issue. It should be interesting to see what happens in the Legislature in coming months.
Stay tuned …