US election machine technology is out of date, experts say

Voting machines: Time for an upgrade?
Voting machines: Time for an upgrade?

GOP candidate Donald Trump's recent claims about a "rigged" election are shining a spotlight on the nation's voting infrastructure.

Experts say the chances of hacking at the polls are remote, since voting machines aren't typically connected to the internet. Still, research shows the technology behind most of these machines is grossly outdated.

Forty-three states have voting machines that are at least a decade old, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy group at New York University's Law School. Gregory Miller, co-founder of the Oset Institute, which works with election officials to update infrastructure, said most voting machines are running on outdated software like Windows 2000.

"The largest problem here is that the PC-based equipment is based upon technology that is not only antiquated, but it is flat out obsolete," Miller said. "Innovation in this space has devolved to a discussion of spare parts from Asia, and software patches from Eastern Europe."

Three main companies provide the vast majority of voting machines for U.S. elections — ES&S, Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic. The challenge facing the companies, according to Miller, is that states don't have money to buy upgraded equipment, so companies don't have the incentive to innovate.

"If you don't have customers willing to pay for your product, you end up making a minimally viable product and relying on extensive service and support agreements over an extended period of time to keep that machine running properly," Miller said.

Currently, there are two bills in Congress that would address these issues. The "Election Infrastructure and Security Promotion Act of 2016" would require the Department of Homeland Security to designate voting systems as "critical infrastructure," which would allow for more DHS support and protections. The other bill, the "Election Integrity Act," would restrict the voting machines that states can buy.

An electronic voting booth stands at a polling station inside Our Savior Lutheran Church during the South Carolina.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

While voting systems are outdated, Trump's allegations of "large scale voter fraud" don't appear to be supported by evidence. A recent study at Loyola Law School found only 31 instances of voter fraud among 1 billion votes cast in U.S. elections from 2000 to 2014.

Still, the DHS announced earlier this month that "in recent months, malicious cyber actors have been scanning a large number of state systems, which could be a preamble to attempted intrusions. In a few cases, we have determined the malicious actors gained access to state voting-related systems. However, we are not aware at this time of any manipulation of data."

While DHS also says it would be "extremely difficult" for a person or another nation to hack election results, 33 states have accepted help from the agency to provide a cyberhygiene scan on their election systems.

Ultimately, Miller said lack of innovation is the largest threat to the election infrastructure industry.

"Let's face it," Miller said, "at the end of the day, this machinery spends months of bowed silence in cold dark storerooms, only to be awoken for 24 hours of sheer chaos. They're not exactly the kind of machine where you're going to get that return on investment that warrants its engineering or reliability."