Georgia’s voting machines could be at risk from age

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Georgia’s voting machines could be at risk from age

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Brant Sanderlin
Merle King (left), the executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, and Steven Dean, the technical coordinator, review the setup procedure of a voting machine. The center outsources repairs to Georgia’s 27,000 voting machines but is responsible to testing each unit before it is put back into service. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

What you need to know to vote

Nov. 3 is an Election Day in Georgia, with most of the races focused on local government. There also are a few state legislative races to fill vacancies in the General Assembly.

Early voting ends Oct. 30.

Voters can go online to check their registration status and find early-voting locations in their county via the secretary of state’s voter Web page at sos.ga.gov or by contacting their local elections office.

To learn more about the candidates, go to the voter guide put out by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in partnership with the League of Women Voters.

Thousands of voting machines used for elections across Georgia are at least 13 years old and dangerously close to becoming outdated, according to a recent national report documenting the age of machines used across the nation. State officials, however, say voters should have no doubts that they are maintained well and in good working order.

They also don’t plan to replace them any time soon, despite concerns from both local election officials and voting advocates that Georgia needs to start planning for an overhaul that could cost millions of dollars.

“We have done a very good job taking care of this equipment,” said Merle S. King, who leads the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University.

The center since 2002 has worked on behalf of the state to oversee the operation of the machines and make sure the intricate web of Georgia’s voting system performs smoothly for every federal, state and county election held across the state.

As it happened, 2002 was also the year Georgia adopted a uniform voting system. Every county uses the same equipment and procedures, a process King and local election officials say has streamlined the process.

When the state adopted the strategy, officials bought 20,000 machines — what in the industry are called “direct-recording electronic” voting machines, or DREs, known by voters for their touchscreens. Those machines by and large are still used statewide, although more have been purchased since.

The center currently oversees some 27,000 voting machines and counties have continued to add to the inventory. That doesn’t include about 7,000 electronic poll books (used to check in voters; access voter registration information, etc.), about 3,000 scanners and election management servers, among other equipment.

Many of the machines, however, may be nearing the end of their useful lives.

“We’ve been so meticulous with their care,” said DeKalb County Elections Director Maxine Daniels, whose department has about 2,800 machines. “But I’d be a fool to say there are no concerns.”

Georgia is among 43 states using at least some machines that will be at least 10 years old in 2016, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Experts in its report said the expected life span of core components in machines purchased since 2000 is between 10 and 20 years — but closer to 10. Technology, too, changes rapidly, and many older systems were not designed to last for decades. Among the biggest risks, they said, were increased failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost votes.

“Aside from the general life cycle of the machines themselves, by not replacing our machines we are holding Georgia back when it comes to administering elections,” said Kelli Persons, program manager with the League of Women Voters of Georgia. That organization, for example, would love to see Georgia adopt an “instant runoff” voting system — runoffs are currently held weeks after the election — something the current machines could not handle.

In Georgia, counties are responsible for keeping the machines in good working order, such as testing them regularly and charging them quarterly. The center analyzes the data, oversees repairs made by the manufacturer and looks for trends in how the equipment is operating.

The center also gives the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office a two-year rolling outlook of expected performance. It completed a statewide review this past spring of the system.

About 98 percent of machines are available and ready to go right now, ahead of the Nov. 3 election, King said. The other 2 percent or so are being repaired. Repairs in each of the past 10 years or so have only affected about 1 percent of machines annually.

Additionally, “what we’re encouraged about is our level of readiness for the 2016 cycle, which has five elections,” King said. “Our sense is this system will certainly perform well through the 2016, 2017, 2018 cycle.”

As of right now, it would take either substantive changes by the state Legislature or a critical mass of machine failures to force a massive overhaul of machines. Even then, it would be costly. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, estimated costs range from $2,500-$3,000 per unit, not including things such as transportation and maintenance.

Local officials also lauded the maintenance effort, which many said was aided by the effect of early voting across the state. In essence, not as many people have to use the machines at once.

“The maintenance schedule has kept the machines in good working order,” said Richard Barron, Fulton County’s director of elections and registration. But, he said, “touchscreen technology has improved so much since Georgia purchased our DREs that I am looking forward to the day we have a system that uses tablets or less expensive pieces of equipment that take up less storage space.”

“Hopefully,” Barron said, “Georgia will move to a new system in 2017 before the 2018 election year.”

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