Thursday, September 21, 2006

"free" DREs are expensive

I've read that when drug dealers want to hook a new victim, they often provide free samples, and once the person is addicted, then the price goes up. By providing HAVA funds to the states and requiring them to purchase electronic voting machines, Congress may have inadvertently jump started an expensive addiction.

Let's look at Maryland. My state has spent $106 million on Diebold electronic voting machines. I am not certain, but I would have to guess that much of that money came from our HAVA funds. I have read the HAVA act, and I did not see anything in there about continued financial support to maintain these machines. However, the shelf life of commercial commodity hardware is quite low. Anyone who owns a laptop knows that at some point, the hard drive will fail and the battery will need to be replaced. Batteries are particularly short lived, regardless of whether or not they are used. Despite the fact that voting machines will mostly sit idle and are only used during testing, primaries and general elections, their parts continue to age, and some parts, such as the batteries will need to be replaced every couple of election cycles. And, these parts tend to fail in unpredictable ways. If we continue to use the Diebold DREs, we can expect that several years down the line, a significant fraction of the machines will start to fail arbitrarily in the middle of an election, when the equipment is stressed all at once. The only way to prevent this is to regularly upgrade all of the major parts, the way oil is changed in a car every 3,000 miles. This is very expensive, and there are likely to be no more freebies from the HAVA dealer.

Consider the mechanical lever machines. I am very critical of many aspects of these in terms of transparency, recountability and audit. However, in terms of maintenance cost, these voting machines were relatively cheap. Oil the gears and they lasted for decades. How many people have had the same computer for 10 years? Clearly the primary reason the answer is "very few" is that software and hardware become obsolete as technology advances. But as a result, manufacturers know that they only need computer parts to last 4-5 years at most, and thus there is no need for them to spend extra money producing parts that last longer.

Unless Maryland has a special fund put aside to regularly replace or upgrade many of the hardware components of the electronic voting machines we use, then in future elections, we will find that voting machine hardware failure rates at the polls will rise dramatically. If this past primary is any indication, such Election Day hardware failures will greatly disrupt our ability to hold fair elections.

I'm sure Congress did not set out to thrust an expensive habit upon the states, but those who yielded to the temptation of the HAVA windfall may have to find a way to fund the maintenance and upkeep of this equipment, and it is not going to be cheap.