Old voting machines come with a cost

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LANSING — When Michigan voters cast ballots Nov. 8, they’ll be lining up at voting machines that may be 15 years old in some places.

County clerks and election officials say they hope for updated equipment by 2017, or at least by the time voters decide on Michigan’s new governor in 2018. But they say voters this November could face machine crashes and long wait times caused by the aging equipment.

Already Michigan ranks 46th in the nation for how much time the average voter will take to cast a ballot, according to a Massachussetts Institute of Technology study.

Old machines don’t threaten the security and safety of elections, said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum. Because they are so old, someone would have to physically break into a voting machine to steal the votes.

The Senate Fiscal Agency reported in 2015 that many of the state’s voting machines are between 10 and 12 years old and run on a Windows XP operating system that hasn’t been sold since 2008.

In Cheboygan County, the voting tabulators are 15 years old and results are transferred through a landline phone, Chief Deputy Clerk Amber Libby said.

To stay up to date with outdated technology, Cheboygan’s election office must keep a computer with the old software  and a designated landline phone, Libby said.

“It’s just archaic,” she said. “It certainly works, but there has to be a more efficient way when everything these days is wireless.”

In Grand Traverse County, election officials keep old machines around in case one breaks, and sometimes they buy used ones since the current model is no longer sold, said Bonnie Scheele, the county clerk.

“When they break you can’t fix them,” she said. “We are really looking forward to new equipment.”

Michigan is not alone. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that almost every state is using electronic voting systems that are at least 10 years old.

The main factor behind outdated machines is the cost of buying new ones, Byrum said. But state officials say money is being saved for new equipment and it’s just a matter of when it will be used.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 includes an additional $10 million for voting machine replacement. Michigan has about $25 million in federal money to update election equipment through the Help America Vote Act, which will be used to purchase new equipment.

The state has saved about $30 million from the Help America Vote Act, said Fred Woodhams, communications manager for the Secretary of State’s Office.

And that money, in conjunction with other state funds and local funds, will be used to purchase new equipment as soon as this year but not in time for the election, he said.

The state is securing a deal with a multiple vendors, although Woodhams said he could not disclose any information on the vendor until a contract is set.

Costs to local government for new equipment haven’t been identified, Woodhams said. And the new equipment won’t be dispersed throughout the state uniformly. It is up to local officials to decide the best time to buy them, he said.

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