The first meeting of the Trump administration’s new advisory committee on election integrity consisted mainly of voter-fraud fear-mongering. As he opened the event, President Trump wondered aloud whether states that have refused to comply with the committee’s massive request for voter data (because it violates state law) have something to hide. “What are they worried about?” he asked. “There’s something, there always is.”
In their opening statements, secretaries of state and election commissioners from across the country all too happily offered up possibilities, raising specters of noncitizens registering to vote, voters being registered in multiple states, and people casting votes on behalf of the deceased. Hans von Spakovsky, a committee member and senior legal fellow at the right-learning Heritage Foundation, pointed to his organization’s database of 1,071 documented cases of voter fraud over the last several decades, neglecting to mention that figure constitutes just .0008 percent of the people who voted in the 2016 election alone. Together, they painted a picture of a pervasive and insidious threat to free and fair elections, despite the mountains of research showing that actual voter fraud is scarce.
But amid all the conjecture came one nugget of actual truth, offered by Judge Alan King of Jefferson County, Alabama. Not only did Judge King, one of the committee’s few Democrats, state that he’d never seen a single instance of voter fraud in all his years as head of elections in Jefferson County, he was also the lone member of the committee to use his opening remarks to raise the critically important issue of outdated voting technology. Unlike phantom zombie voters, that issue poses a real, and well-documented, threat to people’s voting rights.
“These voting machines are outdated. There’s no money there. Counties don’t have money. States don’t have money. We need money,” King said. “We can discuss a lot of things about voting, but … unless the technology is keeping up with voting, then we’re not using our time very wisely in my opinion.”
As King noted, much of the country’s voting technology is a decade or more old, purchased after the Help America Vote Act sent $2 billion to the states to upgrade election equipment, after dangling chads helped make a hash of the 2000 contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Many states haven’t upgraded since; a 2015 study by New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice found that during the 2016 election, 43 states planned on using voting systems that were more than 10 years old.
That makes these tools especially vulnerable to attack, because the software that runs them—including Windows XP—is often no longer supported.
Not only that, but as aging systems break down, cash-strapped states and counties struggle to replace them. With fewer functioning voting machines in place, already long voting lines are likely to grow, which has been proven to dissuade people from voting.
What’s more troubling for anyone interested in equal voting rights is that not all communities share the burden of this old technology equally. In 2012, black voters waited in line twice as long as white voters. And the Brennan Center’s research shows that districts that planned to invest in new voting technology had a higher per capita income than districts that didn’t.
“Whatever the cost is, it lands disproportionately more on some people than others, and that’s unfair,” Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at MIT who studies voting lines, told WIRED last fall.
To ensure more secure elections, the committee might also consider requiring states to audit their elections. Right now, few safeguards exist to ensure that electronic voting machines accurately record votes from paper ballots. Auditing these results against physical ballots would go a long way toward assuring the accuracy of vote tallies. At least, that could help states that actually use paper ballots, another critical recommendation the election integrity committee could make, were it truly serious about ensuring election integrity.
Judge King noted that Jefferson County was able to upgrade its voting technology “to the tune of $3.1 million” in time for last year’s election. But such local investments aren’t possible in every county. Which is where a federal committee on election integrity might actually come in handy. If the committee wants to have a real impact on securing the sanctity of every vote, then investing in voting systems that actually work properly would be a mighty fine place to start.