Electronic voting machines suck, the comprehensive 2016 election edition

It's been thirteen years since we started writing here about the shenanigans of the electronic voting machine industry, who were given a gift when, after the contested 2000 elections, Congress and the Supreme Court signaled that elections officials had to go and buy new machines.

Over the past decade-plus, it's only gotten worse. There was that time that Diebold sent thousands of legal threats to suppress information about its cover-up of faults in its voting machines (this story got worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse and worse, culminating in a landmark judgment against Diebold,

There were the 2006 voting machine debacles (it got worse). In 2007, the company that certified voting machines was decertified. That was also the year that security researchers started buying used evoting machines for pennies on the dollar on Ebay and subjecting them to scrutiny (Dan Rather wasn't amused).

In 2008, Sequoia pulled a Diebold over its own machines, threatening academics who reported defects in their products (their saber-rattling scared a New Jersey town so badly that it decided not to audit the machines it used in its own elections). Sequoia was later found to have some pretty weird code in its machines, including what looks like an election-rigging subroutine.

In 2010, evoting spread to India, starting a national dumpster fire (they arrested the guy who revealed that the machines were useless, which definitely fixed things!).

In 2011, we learned that New Jersey's voting machines were unsafe at any speed. In the 2012 elections, Ohio's GOP Secretary of State ordered a last-minute, unaudited reflash of the state's voting machines (seems legit).

Now, security researchers are sounding alarm bells about the 2016 elections, and Bloomberg Businessweek has written up its own massive, investigative piece on the manifest unsuitability of US voting machines for any purpose apart from serving as object lessons in bad systems design.

Before Global was sold, Earley says, its executives were frantically trying to solve the problem of recurring revenue. Consumers were willing to replace mobile phones or computers every two or three years to get the latest features, creating big profits and fast innovation cycles. County buyers wanted electronic voting machines to last a decade or more. Earley believes Global ran into trouble because its products were too reliable, so there were too few returning customers.

He says the competition solved the revenue problem by focusing less on making equipment and more on long-term contracts. It was an enhancement of the old razors-and-blades strategy: Sell the razors cheap and make money on the blades, and make even more money by making the razors so hard to use that customers pay you to give them a shave. When Allen County, Ohio, replaced its old voting machines in 2005 with equipment from ES&S, officials didn't realize they'd also be stuck with a service fee of $40,000 per year to help run an election system that handled about 70,000 votes. "When we found out the cost, our jaws just about hit the floor," says Ken Terry, who was election director there until this year.

To top it off, Terry discovered that the county was paying top dollar for antiquated technology. It wasn't until the machines were purchased, and in place, that county officials realized their new system ran on software written in 1996. After counting paper ballots with an optical scanner, the data had to be transferred to a server using Zip drives—a storage format developed when pagers and AOL dial-up were still in vogue. When Allen County tried to replace the disks in 2012, they were so hard to find that officials had to ask ES&S for a set. "They were in this shrink-wrapped package," Terry says, "and when we opened it, there was a coupon that expired in 1999."

The Computer Voting Revolution Is Already Crappy, Buggy, and Obsolete
[Michael Riley, Jordan Robertson, and David Kocieniewski/Bloomberg Businessweek]

(Image: Julian Berman)