Experienced New Hampshire voters will see something quite familiar when they cast their primary ballots Tuesday: A vote-counting machine that hasn’t changed in more than two decades.
The AccuVote optical reader has been part of Granite State elections since the early 1990s, when it was first accepted by the Secretary of State’s office.
It’s a 14-pound box that looks like an oversized laptop computer sitting on top of a collection bin. As each voter leaves the polling place, poll workers slip their ballot into the AccuVote slot and the machine bounces light off the paper. Sensors tally filled-in circles next to candidates’ names and then the ballot falls into the bin below the reader.
After polls close, the reader prints out the results, with all the paper ballots available for a recount.
Other technologies have come and gone over the years but AccuVote has remained, and today is the state’s only legal ballot-counting technology. On primary day it will be used in 118 towns and 73 city wards, leaving the other 100 or so towns in the state, including several in the Concord area, to count ballots on election night by hand.
That long record is a comforting sign of reliability in the wake of the Iowa caucus failure caused by a new, untested app. The AccuVote readers have been involved in thousands of elections, giving polling officials experience in its operation, and in hundreds of recounts, giving experience in its reliability.
It’s also disconnected from the internet or other networks, making it very difficult to hack. For example, each election’s software update, telling the machine which races are in which place on the ballot, gets loaded into each machine separately from thumb drives sent to each community.
But old technology can be worrisome, too. The software for the AccuVote reader runs on WindowsXP, an operating system that hasn’t been supported by Microsoft since 2014, making it vulnerable to crashes. The machines themselves aren’t made anymore, so the provider has to buy old ones and cannibalize them for parts when repairs are needed.
That’s why the state has been looking for a replacement for more than a year, including a one-day trade show in the State House last February, at which four firms tried to convince the state to buy their updated machines which tally results from paper ballots. (Paper ballots are required under New Hampshire law.)
It turns out, however, that updating a 1990s technology can be hard because so many other things have been developed around it, which is why the state has not chosen a successor technology.
“After reviewing the products of those machines, they are quite involved, to the point that there is not a replacement that we can go out and approve and put into service that is like the (one) we use now,” said Dave Scalan, New Hampshire’s Deputy Secretary of State.
The main complication, he said, is all these new systems depend upon their own style of paper ballot which means that all elections in New Hampshire, including local ones, would have to adopt the machines.
“They would have to be compatible with what the state does, or the voters are going to be bouncing back and forth between different types of voting systems, which would be confusing,” he said.
The modern systems can do a lot more than the current system, such as flag uncertain votes for instant visual inspection by poll workers, but that’s because they are a lot more complex.
“The more software that is contained, the more suspicious people become of their ability to properly count ballots,” Scanlan said. “We would probably have to come up with some kind of system to audit ballots after the fact.”
Regular audits after elections is a hot topic in New Hampshire. The Secretary of State’s office has long opposed them as an unnecessary expense but some advocates say they can help instill confidence in the election system. A bill before the House would allow voters in any AccuVote community to request a post-election audit, a request currently limited to when results are very close or somehow contested.
Scanlan said the office is continuing to look into the future of vote-counting machines, but is also working on other modernization of the election process.
That includes electronic polling books to replace the written records still kept by virtually all checklist supervisors – Derry and Milford are testing electronic versions – as well as the possibility of online voter registration or automatic voter registration, both of which are the subject of bills being considered by the Legislature.
“If those bills pass, our resources are going to be diverted in that direction,” said Scanlan.
As for the AccuVote readers, there are enough of them still out – some other states still use them – that Scanlan said his office isn’t worried about the near term.
“We can continue to use them, but we recognize that at some point we’re going to have to make a change,” he said.