In the lobby of a North Austin hotel, Almina Cook is eating an ice cream sandwich as she and two of her deputies listen to a salesman pitch them on a soon-to-hit-the-market voting machine. Along with hundreds of other election administrators from across Texas, Cook, the top election official in Hunt County, has come to this biannual conference to get briefed by state and federal officials and shop for machines and software. Vendors get to entice election officials with private demos, dinners and other freebies.
This year is particularly important for Cook; she needs to replace the county’s 13-year-old machines, which have exceeded their recommended life cycle and require constant repair. But early in the salesman’s spiel, Cook makes one thing clear: She’s just window shopping for now.
Texas’ voting machines are deteriorating — and it’s not clear how the second-largest state in the country is going to pay for new ones.
Cook estimates that it would cost her small county northeast of Dallas around $1.2 million to upgrade voting machines. “All the counties have been put in a hard position to find money for new equipment,” she said. “And there’s no funds to help us.”
Local election administrators in Texas are eager to replace voting machines purchased more than a decade ago in time for the 2020 presidential election. Increasingly susceptible to malfunctions, upkeep for the aging machines can exceed $300,000 annually in the biggest counties. Election experts have also raised security concerns about the paperless electronic devices used in most of the state.
The little help Congress has offered comes in the form of recent funding that will be used for cyber updates and training, not voting machines. And state leaders have shown no interest in chipping in, even as scrutiny over the security of the country’s election systems ratchets up in the face of Russian attacks.
In 2017, budget writers in the Texas Legislature seemed lukewarm to the idea of replacing aging equipment. Legislation that would have created a state fund for new voting equipment died without getting a committee vote in the House. The bill received a late-session hearing during which one lawmaker on the panel, Representative Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, asked county officials to shorten their testimony because a college basketball championship game had just tipped off.
“I hope we don’t have to wait until a crisis, but we are walking on thin ice when it comes to the integrity of our voting machines,” said state Representative Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and the sponsor of the 2017 legislation.
More than 200 of Texas’ 254 counties still need to replace their voting machines and it appears unlikely that all will be able to do so in time for the next presidential election. The full price tag, according to election officials, is around $350 million — and local officials are having to find inventive ways to cover the costs. Travis County, for example, is expected to announce the winner of a new voting machine contract this week and plans to sell local bonds to come up with the anticipated $15 million.
The situation has grown dire. Some counties are using equipment that’s no longer manufactured. Machine failures are growing more common and it’s becoming harder to find replacement parts. County workers often have to scour eBay and Amazon to locate bygone tech relics such as as Zip disks and flash drives compatible with older machines.
After Bexar County’s antiquated machines were featured in an Associated Press story last year, local officials from across the country started mailing Zip disks to the elections office. Texas’ fourth-largest county has resorted to paying a voting machine vendor about $310,000 to “crack every unit,” inspecting the devices’ guts and making sure touchscreens work, just to keep some of the state’s oldest machines up and running, said elections administrator Jacque Callanen.
Spurred by Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Congress is sending $380 million to states for voting system safeguards. Local officials have been waiting for a new federal infusion since the 2002 Help America Vote Act. However, any hopes of using Texas’ share of the federal money — $23 million — to upgrade old machines in Texas were dashed at the conference last week.
During an information session on the first day of the meeting, Mary Martha Arana, the elections administrator in Upton County, asked state election officials a question that was on the minds of many: “What about money for new machines?” Keith Ingram, the director of the elections division in the Texas secretary of state’s office, had a simple response: Not happening.
The federal funding just isn’t adequate to help 254 counties buy machines, and Texas is only kicking in $1 million of its own money, Ingram explained. Instead, the funds will be used for county cyber training, election auditing and to enhance the security of the state’s voter registration database.
“The goal is to take these limited funds and make the most impact,” Ingram told the conference attendees.
The announcement about machine funding put some local officials in a gloomy mood. Some were also surprised to learn that the secretary of state’s office had already explained its plans to the feds in a letter sent in mid-July.
Arana estimates that it would cost her small West Texas county about $135,000 to replace voting machines. She said she had expected to get federal funds to help her pay for new equipment.
“That would help make this more palatable to our [county] commissioners when they consider making such a deep investment,” Arana told the Observer.
Chris Davis, president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators and the top election official in Williamson County, described the $23 million federal grant as a “pittance.”
“I hope the Legislature is starting to understand how bad the problem is,” said Davis.