Walker County is one of seven counties in the state with election tabulation machines that are not even manufactured anymore, leaving county officials agreeing that they will have to be replaced soon.
Walker County Probate Judge A. Lee Tucker said Thursday that it looks like the machines, which accept paper ballots during elections, cannot be replaced in time for the 2020 elections. However, he said that the machines are tested and currently work.
Currently the county has 45 precincts, not counting absentee and provisional ballots. Machines will have to be replaced in all those election sites, plus provisions made for machines to help the disabled. A total of 76 M100 machines and another 45 machines for the disabled are currently used in Walker County, he said.
Tucker said some precincts use more than one machine, and extras are also needed sometimes when a machine breaks down.
The reactions come after a national election security report, "Defending Elections," was published last week by the Brennan Center for Justice noting states need more federal funding to prevent outside cyber threats against elections.
The report sampled needs in six states, including Alabama.
In 2018, the state spent nearly $6.2 million in federal election security funding, plus $308,000 in a state match. That included $3 million on voter registration database upgrades, $300,000 for computer equipment upgrades and replacements, $800,000 in post-election audits and, using $2.3 million of the funds, addressing cyber vulnerabilities.
It noted a state election website was previously addressed for vulnerabilities, as an example of that need.
The report noted as for future needs, "Alabama election officials in every county except Montgomery use legacy voting systems that are more than a decade old, include AutoMARK voting systems, used in 66 counties, and M100 (precinct count optical scanners), used in seven counties."
Tucker confirmed Thursday Walker County is using the M100 machines.
"We probably purchased the machines 12 or 13 years ago" - about the projected lifetime for those machines, Tucker said. "We've also got the machines for the handicapped voting. We've got those also."
"These aging voting systems are a security risk and less reliable than voting equipment available today. Older systems are generally 'more likely to fail' and are increasingly difficult to maintain,'" the report stated, at one point quoting from testimony from Lawrence Norden, director of election reform for the Brennan Center for Justice, at an election security hearing.
"Specifically, as neither the AutoMARK nor the M100 is currently manufactured, finding replacement parts will be increasingly difficult over time," the report said.
The report also noted system-specific security concerns that have been reported, such as "inconsistent vote tallying and reboot times of 15 to 20 minutes." It said these systems "simply lack important security features expected of voting machines today, such as hardware access deterrents for ports."
Bullock County Probate Judge James Tatum was quoted in the report as saying rural counties are left without tools or resources to update like wealthier urban counties, with rural counties even responsible for paying to train workers and poll workers.
Alabama officials also would like "a state program that provides election security and cybersecurity professional services to local officials," the report said.
Tucker, who took office in January and will be going through his first major election cycle, said Thursday that county officials have reached out to Election Systems & Software (ES&S, once known as Roberts and Sons), the long-time statewide provider for election equipment and materials. A meeting between county officials and them was held this week.
"We're talking about it now to see what the numbers will be (for replacing machines), and we don't know yet," Tucker said, later adding, "Nothing is going to happen in this election cycle. And we're good. The machines have been tested and they are good." '
He has been assured the machines, which the county owns, can be kept up for this election cycle through 2020.
Tucker was not so concerned about security threats through the current machines, which he said is supposed to involve the software instead of the machines.
"That is not really a concern, because they load the software into them each election. They are not connected to the internet while they are in the midst of being used," he said. "It does all the county and the things are then brought over (to the Jasper Civic Center)."
Asked about security threats through newer machines, Tucker said county officials are studying the issue, noting the machines would have more capabilities.
He said part of the considerations also involves whether the county acquires electronic polling books, a separate issue which has been advocated statewide by Secretary of State John Merrill. Tucker said if those devices are obtained, he has been told the county would need 76 of them in total.
The process speeds up voting in terms of finding the name in the poll books at the polling place, Merrill said in a 2017 speech in Jasper. Without a need to divide names alphabetically, one goes to the shortest line. At the table is an iPad on a swivel stand.
One’s voter ID, such as a driver’s license, is scanned into the iPad and the voter’s name pulls up with a photo, signature, whether one applied for an absentee ballot and other details. One signs in on the iPad with a stylus pen to compare the signature, and one gets the ballot.
“It reduces the wait time 60 to 75 percent, depending on the poll worker and the voter. In Mobile, they averaged voting 650 voters an hour,” Merrill said at the time.
Tucker said Thursday that the new equipment is a budget issue, and that officials are looking at the costs.
"It's not going to be an inexpensive upgrade," he said, noting it may take several years to phase in the equipment.
No financial estimates are available on the new equipment. "They are getting us numbers," he said. Some Help America Vote Act funds are available, but not enough to cover the entire need, he said.
As for making do for the coming year, Tucker noted that Mobile County has just changed over its voting machines in time for this election cycle. ES&S purchased 40 machines from that county to provide spare parts for others, he said.
"They've given us confidence they will be able to keep all our machines going," he said.
The current machines are regularly maintained, even in off-election years.
"They are kept at the county airport," where the county engineer keeps his office. "They are charged every 90 days. They get tested. That is how the batteries stay good, because they have to charge them," Tucker said.
Tucker noted ES&S is a good, secure vendor which handles not just systems in Alabama but in other states as well. "They are very good at what they do," he said.
Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop, asked Thursday about the tabulation machines, said Thursday, "Yes, we're going to have to" replace the M100s. He said he has been in discussions with Tucker, who he said would get the commission financial costs.
"He is going to come up with a program, and we're going to look at it. Then we'll have to change over. It's coming," he said, adding it is expected to involve a large cost. Officials will look to see if federal or state grant funds are available, he said.
The commission and Tucker will work on the situation over the next six months, Bishop said, adding that all seven counties in the state with M100s "will have to conform, not just us."
He said officials would look for "the best machine for the best price."
The number of precincts could also affect such a purchase. In September 2017, County Engineer Mike Short had advocated the commission cut down the weeks of installing and removing vote tabulations machines in precincts by combining precincts.
“I will reiterate again that if there is any way at some point we can look at consolidating some of those,”he would like to do that, Short said at the time. “I know that is an unpleasant subject but it would certainly save us some time if we didn’t have 44 or 45 voting locations to put machines out and gather them back up.”
Short said it probably takes three weeks before a vote and two weeks afterward to move the vote tabulations machines in and out of all the precincts. He said for those five weeks, a majority of time for some officials is spent dealing with voting machines.
Access into some locked facilities, such as churches, has become an issue at times, he said.