Off Brand

Here’s the Real Scandal With Voting Machines

Why one of the most important technological objects in a democracy — now at the center of every conspiracy theory — has been such a sleepy industry

A photo collage of a man driving a horse-pulled cart, with a voting booth on the cart.
A photo collage of a man driving a horse-pulled cart, with a voting booth on the cart.
Illustration: Julia Moburg/Medium

Before the most recent presidential election, companies in the business of voting technology were hardly household names. That changed as the various wild and unfounded claims (lies) by Donald Trump and his allies about the vote being “stolen” were amplified by pro-Trump media outlets.

Thus the names Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic did become recognizable in plenty of households — and these companies have lately launched aggressive lawsuits to defend their brands. Dominion has filed separate $1.3 billion defamation suits against pro-Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, as well as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. Separately, Smartmatic filed a $2.7 billion defamation suit against Powell, Giuliani, Fox News, and several Fox personalities.

The business of designing and making voting machines — surely some of the most important technological objects in a democracy—has for years been a rather sleepy and uninnovative segment.

It’s all pretty dramatic stuff, and it makes voting tech sound almost thrillingly high-stakes and cutting-edge. But in truth, the business of designing and making voting machines — surely some of the most important technological objects in a democracy — has for years been a rather sleepy and uninnovative segment.

Perhaps the main reason for this is simply that the industry is small. “Only about 150,000 machines are sold every year,” says Jessica Huseman, editorial director of Votebeat, a nonprofit focused on voting and election coverage. “MacBooks might be terrible, too, if they sold so few.” The field is dominated by just a handful of companies: market leader ES&S, close rival Dominion, and distant third Hart InterCivic. All are private, but by one estimate, annual revenue for the entire sector is only about $300 million a year. (Apple’s revenue in the fourth quarter of 2020 was more than $64 billion.)

“Innovation fundamentally requires money to pay for the R&D,” says Dan Wallach, a professor in Rice University’s Department of Computer Science whose expertise includes voting security. And the sector’s clients are serially underfunded government agencies that tend to implement new technology only once a decade or so.

Instead of a vibrant marketplace with competition forcing those improvements, we have a stagnant one with high barriers to entry.

To be clear, there is no evidence of voting machine problems that would come close to affecting the outcome of any sizable election, let alone the recent presidential contest. But as Huseman’s earlier reporting for ProPublica on stumbles and mishaps involving faulty voting equipment demonstrated, there is room for improvement. Instead of a vibrant marketplace with competition forcing those improvements, we have a stagnant one with high barriers to entry.

The voting machine industry wasn’t always so sleepy. Early machines in the 1800s helped ensure secret ballots and curbed common fraud tactics. And they have evolved over the years — for example, adopting a punch-card system in the 1960s. That was followed by a “huge surge” in innovation around electronic voting in the 1980s and 1990s, says Douglas W. Jones, a professor in the University of Iowa’s Department of Computer Science who studies voting and elections. The market was different then, and the transition from old-style voting machines was led by “a large number of small scrappy and innovative companies.”

These days, any innovation seems to be coming from the fringes or outside the sector.

By the 2000 presidential election and its vote-counting fiasco, a wave of mergers had consolidated the field. The industry got a nudge from the Help America Vote Act, which aimed to replace punch card and lever-based machines, leading the big players to focus on new touchscreen “direct recording electronic” systems that stored votes in computer memory. The lack of a physical backup alarmed many voting experts, and by the 2010s, an alternative category, the “ballot-marking device,” was ascendent. Basically, voters select their choices on a touchscreen, and the system produces a printed ballot. (According to BallotPedia, this design had originally been used to accommodate voters with disabilities.) Today, this style of machine is increasingly commonplace, and Dominion’s machines are “a fairly straightforward implementation” of the design, Wallach says.

These days, any innovation seems to be coming from the fringes or outside the sector. Notably, Wallach mentions that Microsoft has taken an interest, with its ElectionGuard project, which is working with outside experts (Wallach among them) and aims to develop new technologies that improve security. It’s a not-for-profit effort, with Microsoft giving away the results. Wallach has also worked with VotingWorks, a nonprofit startup making “risk-limiting audit software” meant to ensure that votes cast “on any paper-based system are correctly tabulated.”

As for Smartmatic, it’s a puzzling target for the conspiracists, because (according to the company itself) in the 2020 election, its technology was used only in Los Angeles County. The company was one of a number of participants in a county-led initiative to build a custom voting system improving upon the ballot-marking device approach. Despite some flaws, Huseman says, “L.A. County’s machine is among the most innovative on the market from a design and usability standpoint.” And in a way, that’s why Smartmatic ended up filing a lawsuit — so that perhaps its name can be associated with efforts to improve our voting systems, not wild conspiracy theories from sore-loser fabulists.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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