Aging voting machines in Clark County, statewide need replaced soon

A sensor in a voting machine in Green Twp. stopped working during the primary election this week, which elections officials locally and statewide said is a symptom of Ohio’s aging voting machines that need upgraded soon.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration called the aging voting machines an “impending crisis” in a 2014 report to President Obama.

It could cost $150 million to $175 million to buy new voting equipment statewide, a recent state report found, and there’s likely little federal money available now like there was a decade ago.

The Ohio Secretary of State’s Office has been developing a plan to upgrade voting equipment statewide by the 2020 election.

“With all technology there is a certain lifespan and it’s no secret that Ohio’s voting machines are starting to age. You wouldn’t keep a laptop for more than a decade, but this is equipment that gets used two times a year, maybe four times a year,” said Joshua Eck, a secretary of state spokesman.

The Clark County Board of Elections quickly replaced the malfunctioning ballot scanner on Tuesday night. Just three voters at the Pitchin Fire Department were affected, board Director Jason Baker said, and their ballots were placed in a locked box and scanned in the main Springfield office.

The board has 115 optical scanner machines and 90 are used on Election Day to count the paper ballots.

“The equipment is getting a little aged, but it’s still useful right now,” Jackson said.

The Clark County Board of Elections purchased the optical scan machines in 2004 and board members said they still have use in them. County leaders have discussed plans to being replacing them.

“They’re just at the point that we have to watch them and make sure that they’re functioning properly,” elections board members Lynda Smith said.

In response to widespread problems with punch-card voting machines in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act, which provided states with $3 billion in federal money to replace equipment between 2003 to 2005.

Ohio spent $115 million to upgrade its voting machines a decade ago.

The cost to replace the equipment now is likely higher, according to a report by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the Ohio Association of Elections Officials.

The state’s voting equipment is in good condition right now, Eck said. No major problems occurred during the March primary on Tuesday, he said, and officials don’t anticipate issues in November.

Secretary of State Jon Husted understands the issue needs to be addressed, Eck said, and state and federal lawmakers will need to take it on soon.

County elections boards have backup machines, backup paper ballots and electronic poll books, Eck said, but state leaders don’t want a crisis.

Representatives from the County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the Ohio Association of Elections Officials met with Husted in October to discuss how the state would replace the machines.

Husted and the two associations said in a report they support a state and county partnership to update equipment and also recognized that the overall price tag would be substantial.

Additional discussions on the best way for Ohio to conduct elections are needed before investing between $150 million to $175 million on new equipment, the report says.

The hope is that the equipment is updated and ready prior to the 2020 presidential election, said Cheryl Subler, policy director for the county commissioners association. But she said federal funding to assist with that isn’t likely.

“We know that our voting equipment is aging. We know it’s hitting the end of its useful life. We’ve had anecdotal experiences where some of the ancillary equipment has failed, like printers and some software issues. The signs are there that we need to come up with a proposal to replace the voting equipment,” CCAO Legislative Counsel John Leutz said.

The groups want to develop a process where they can get a handle on the voting options and costs to take to the Statehouse, he said, and ask for matching funds to purchase new voting equipment.

“It’s electronic technology. It can be fine one second and the next second not work and you’ve got a crisis. We all realize that the older this type of equipment gets, the higher the percentage or likelihood that all of a sudden it stops working and none of us want that result,” Leutz said.

Matthew Masterson, who has been a commissioner with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission since 2014, said most of the voting equipment across the United State was purchased in 2004 and 2006 or earlier.

Ohio and its counties have worked to maintain and test their equipment and he’s confident the systems will work well during the 2016 presidential election.

“But moving forward this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “We can’t continue to ignore the fact that our voting machines are a decade old or more. States like Ohio and most of the states in the country need to have this dialogue.”

Clark County Administrator Nathan Kennedy said the county began setting aside $100,000 a year in 2014 after a former elections director raised concerns about the aging machines.

The board currently has about $260,000 in the fund after using purchasing electronic poll books last year, Kennedy said.

Ted McClenen, Clark County Board of Elections member, said the board has discussed replacing its machines, but would like funding assistance from the state.

The board has eliminated a number of polling locations, McClenen said, which has lead to more backup scanners if needed.

“We’ve got extra scanners to use,” McClenen said.

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