Almost two decades after the Bush v. Gore hanging chad debacle, the U.S. still doesn't have reliable voting machines. Many of the very old machines have been replaced—the government allocated $3.4 billion to improve voting in 2002, including buying new tech—but now those new ones are already falling apart. One startup is hoping to replace them with something that can last much longer.
"Those machines were brought to market fairly quickly, and there weren't the types of federal standards in place at the time that there were today," says Ed Smith, VP of product for the Boston-based startup Clear Ballot. "Now those machines and voting systems are obsolete. They are dying, and you can't get spare parts for them anymore, just like you can't get spare parts for your Atari or your Commodore 64."
When something breaks, counties sometimes end up searching for proprietary parts on Ebay. And as the older equipment falls apart, there's a greater chance that it won't count votes correctly or that people won't be able to vote when they show up at the polls.
"As the machines wear out, their accuracy becomes suspect," Smith says. "They may not pick up marks that are on the ballot. When you have a machine that dies of course voting is disrupted at the polling place, so you have lines, people may have to go home, and people working shifts have to go back to work."
Clear Ballot's new machines are designed to be cheap and simple to repair; the software updates automatically, and they use standard, off-the-shelf components that can easily be replaced. It's possible to upgrade without tossing the entire machine out.
"That's the paradigm that the nation finds itself in today—that all of these existing voting machines are just going to have to be dumped," says Smith. "There's really nothing you can do other than sell them for scrap. We've changed that paradigm. Now we have a situation where instead of having to cannibalize other machines for spares, or find them on the gray market, you simply go with something that's newer and better."
The box instantly scans paper ballots, letting voters know if they made a mistake—like voting for two presidential candidates—so it can be corrected. Unlike a fully digital machine, it keeps a paper record: a cash register-like receipt that prints out at the end of Election Day, and the paper ballots themselves. The results are also on USB sticks that can go a central location.
"You have redundancy of the results so you have some security and safety around the election and keeping the results, not losing anything," Smith says. The scanner also captures and saves detailed images of each checkmark on a ballot, so they can be doublechecked while keeping voters anonymous.
It's also easier to use for voters; while some older machines might take as long as 25 seconds to read a ballot—and another 25 seconds to note any mistakes—the new machine can be done in three seconds, so lines move faster.
"The older machines don't give the voter a good level of confidence," Smith says. "Your phone doesn't work that way. An airport kiosk doesn't work that way...we've done a lot in terms of the user interface so people understand what the machine is trying to tell them. They come away with an experience that's on part with the rest of the technology they use in their everyday lives."
The problem: because the technology just came out, and election officials have to wait for slow-moving state approval, they won't be in use for the 2016 presidential elections.