Michigan election equipment is worn out

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By Ben Muir
MI First Election

Optical-scan tabulators — machines that tally election results — in Michigan are over a decade old. Local officials are seeking replacement of the machines, as concerns arise over the validity of the outdated equipment.

“All 83 of the county clerks have been actively lobbying for new election equipment because our election computers are over 12 years old,” Barb Byrum, the clerk of Ingham County said. “No one owns a cellphone that’s more than three years old, let alone a computer over 12 years.”

The Ingham County Clerk’s Office has been requesting updated equipment for ‘at least’ three years, Byrum says. Receiving new equipment must be state-certified, a process beginning at the Bureau of Elections in Michigan, which is headed by the Secretary of State. 

The Deputy Communications Director at the Secretary of State, Fred Woodhams, says the issued tabulators across Michigan have been adequate in accurately calculating hundreds of millions of votes. But the equipment is surely due for an upgrade, Woodhams says.

“We do realize that the election equipment is getting closer to the end of its useful lifecycle,” Woodhams said. “We currently have a bid out for a new election system that we hope to have in place by 2018.”

Gov. Rick Snyder, in his 2016-17 fiscal year budget recommendation, has called for $10 million to go towards new equipment, according to an article from MIRS.

But the deciding factor is the Michigan legislature. Snyder plays little role in enacting this bill, Byrum says.

“Governor Snyder doesn’t do anything. It’s the legislature that appropriates the funds,” Byrum said.” He just makes speeches, and signs things into law.”

Marie Wicks is the City of East Lansing clerk and voting member of the Joint Evaluation Committee. This committee’s goal is to lobby the legislature to ensure that it will put funds aside for election equipment, Wicks says. 

“It’s going to be a very costly proposition, but a necessary one,” Wicks said. “It will be a mixture of a whole lot of state funds, and then local governments and counties as well.”

Michigan will need between $30 and $60 million.

Wicks wrote an email to State Representative Sam Singh on Feb. 2, 2015, regarding the need for election equipment funding.

“I have experienced the breakdown of our dated equipment, over and over,” Wicks said in the email. “Once state of the art, our tabulators regularly malfunction on Election Day. This is unfailingly time-consuming and extremely disruptive to voters.”

Now, voting tabulators are still malfunctioning on Election Day, Wicks says. During the time elapsed, a technician must come and maintenance the equipment. Voters must place their ballots in a ‘bin’ instead of a tabulator, which will be calculated by hand later. This is a huge concern for the reliability, public perception and integrity of the process, Wicks says.

“If someone were to make a mistake on their ballot, by law they have the right to correct that. But if the voter already left the location because of this technology issue, they miss the opportunity to revise that mistake. That’s potentially disenfranchising,” Wicks said. “Public perception is that if someone sees voting equipment breaking down, people will start wondering if the process is flawed.”

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