In April, Representative Henry "Hank" Johnson (GA-04)  introduced a bill in Congress that went largely unnoticed by most.  We noticed.  We prepared comments, feedback, and are now ready to offer moreinput.  At first we were a little dubious because we think the "ask" can be tuned.

The Bill is intended to upgrade aging, outdated voting machines.  While we will address in a separate post our recommendations on how to tune this piece of legislation -- probably for the next session of Congress, we think this is a helluva good idea in principle.  We laud the honorable Representative Johnson for his foresight and action. We think you should too.  Below is the sum and substance of his legislation with some links to go with it.

Let's all get behind this idea in principle: Congress acting to make available some funding to start upgrading voting infrastructure.... not another $3B HAVA maneuver, but something breakthrough and bipartisan.  We think we have the recipe to help.  Here is the starter yeast:

The Verifiable Optimal Tools for Elections Act of 2016

The “Verifying Optimal Tools for Elections Act of 2016" or VOTE Act: H.R. 5131 would allocate more than $125 million dollars in new HAVA (Help America Vote Act) grants to assist states in replacing old, outdated voting machines.

"The bill is based on more than 10-months of in-depth independent research, and interviews with more than 100 election officials and specialists in all 50 states that indicate our outdated voting machines pose an impending crisis,” Rep. Johnson said.

According to a study by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice: “43 states will use electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old, perilously close to the end of most systems’ expected lifespan. Old voting equipment increases the risk of failures and crashes — which can lead to long lines and lost votes on Election Day — and problems only get worse the longer we wait.”

Johnson said there is no time to lose. "By providing just a fraction of the estimated $1 billion it will cost to replace outdated machines, we can begin to address the issue."

Now we differ with the math on what it will take to replace the entire nation's voting infrastructure.  Brennan staff in "hallway conversations" at election professional gatherings have allowed that the math has some arguable variables for calculation (based on available costing information, etc.).  The OSET Institute (Foundation) collaborating with CPAs performed a bottom-up analysis, based on 2.45 million machines in America and their average cost of the technology shipping today, plus the work to implement.  We determined the cost to replace to be closer to $3.0 billion.

But we agree with this assertion all the way:

The longer we wait to invest in our voting machine infrastructure, the more problems we will face,” said Johnson. “More than 30 states want to upgrade their voting machines in the next five years, but most of them don’t know where they’ll get the resources to do it. Let’s help them modernize their systems and bring our voting machines into the 21st century.”

From our stand point, we remain concerned about good money chasing bad; replacing obsolete machinery with archaic equivalents. 

Johnson is particularly concerned by the study that indicated that “without federal or state funding, wealthier counties will replace aging machines, while poorer counties will be forced to use them far longer than they should.”

With limited money to replace outdated machines, poorer counties and urban centers, often with more minority voters, will suffer longer delays and critical breakdowns,” he said. “The VOTE Act will ensure that every vote is counted and every voice is heard.”

The VOTE Act would:

  • Amend the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 to create a $125 million grant program to be used to replace machines that were at least six years old as of the 2012 General Election.  The section would match state funds at a rate of 2-1;
  • Create a grant program through the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) that may be used to reimburse States for training and courses to teach election officials better machine maintenance, pre- and post-election testing, development of contingency plans and poll worker training.  $50 million would authorize for this initiative for fiscal years 2017-2018;
  • Enable States to apply for a portion of a $20 million grant pool dedicated to developing new open-source voter technology, similar to technology developed for Los Angeles, California, and Travis County, Texas.  Johnson observed that non-proprietary, open source software is imperative for next generation voting machines to ensure that this technology can be easily managed, reviewed, and improved (and we think it catalyzes a rejuvenation of a flagging industry, although we believe the amount should be re-thought -- more on that to come);
  • Dictate that upon passage of the VOTE Act, jurisdictions and parties to a recount or election contest proceeding would have access to the voting system software used in the election being contested, leading to a timely resolution of the contest or recount. To respond to trade secret concerns, the legislation would direct the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to devise guidelines on who could view the code, and the circumstances under which it could be viewed.

In summary, we think this is an enormously important first-step toward determining how to bring about innovation and imperative upgrades to our nation's voting infrastructure.  We have some ideas about how to tune this legislation to all but ensure bipartisan support and a solution that could solve this problem nationwide for about one third of what the projected costs are today.  We'll share more of that in coming posts; stay tuned.

For the moment, you should get behind H.R.5131 -- share this post (see link below), promote the bill's links embedded above.  Send an eMail or tweet to your Congressperson.  Here is our bottom line: Failure to repair, replace, upgrade and innovate our critical democracy infrastructure is tantamount to an obstruction of our civic duty, if not our civil right to vote and know our vote was counted as cast.