Are Voting Website Outages a Sign of Bigger Problems?

Last week, service was disrupted for 18 voting information websites serving citizens around the nation this midterm election. But the nation may have bigger problems when it comes to voting technology.

by / November 11, 2014

When 18 voting information websites went down last week, it might have affected the outcome of midterm elections. It’s possible that some people weren’t able to find their polling place or learn about local measures. Service outages also hurt the reputations of the affected municipalities, and some officials say it’s just one piece of a bigger problem, which is that U.S. voting technology is outdated.

Online election hubs went offline for hours on Nov. 4, affecting counties around the country. Ventura, Contra Costa and Shasta counties were affected in California, along with Dallas County in Texas. WCNC reported problems with election software in North Carolina, where they faced similar problems earlier in the year. SOE Software, which is vendor to about 1,400 jurisdictions around the country, explained that this was the first time this has happened, and it was caused by an unexpected amount of traffic to the websites. SOE did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
 
Joe Canciamilla, elections chief for Contra Costa County, said the company’s explanation is not sufficient. “Part of the problem right now is that I don’t know what the real problem was,” Canciamilla said, “because first they tell us ‘the traffic crashed the system,’ and then we get, ‘no, it wasn’t traffic – it was a server issue,’ and then, ‘no, it wasn’t a server issue – there was a software problem.’ When we go to an outside vendor, we’re going to them because they are supposedly experts in a particular arena.” 
 
Access to Contra Costa’s portal was sporadic throughout the day, and after the polls closed, the website had been down eight of 13 hours that day. Canciamilla explained that the county was able to get the information out in alternate ways like providing phone numbers and by publishing results in PDF format on their website.
 
The incident was frustrating and the county is now looking for a replacement to SOE, he said. “Part of it’s frustrating because it happened on Election Day,” he said. “It was something that was completely outside our control, but at the same time, part of the frustration is that California should be a technological leader in a lot of areas, but when it comes to elections, we are still in the 1970s and it’s very frustrating for us in elections to be hampered by technology that is 20 and 30 years old.”
 
Los Angeles County is now in the middle of a multi-year project to update its voting systems, which in some cases still use technology from the 1960s.
 
Contra Costa still relies on technology that many teenagers today would not be able to identify. “My scanning equipment right now is spitting out reports on dot-matrix printers using 3.5-inch disks to download voter data,” Canciamilla said. “It’s ridiculous what we have to deal with, because we don’t have updated systems and equipment. It’s not a function of money in most cases. It’s a function of the secretary of state’s office, which hasn’t approved or certified any systems to allow us to look at options.”
 
The next elections in California will be special elections next year, and by that time, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen will be replaced by a new official (Alex Padilla). Canciamilla hopes Padilla will enable change that allows the county better options when the next presidential election arrives in 2016.
Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.