Viral video of voting machine malfunction in Mississippi governor runoff, explained

The biggest social media story out of Mississippi’s Republican gubernatorial primary race was not Tate Reeves’ win. It was a viral video of an electronic voting machine that appeared to block a Mississippi man from voting for his chosen candidate. 

The 14-second clip shows the voter repeatedly tapping the touchscreen to select Reeves’ opponent Bill Waller Jr. — only to have the computer select Reeves instead. 

"Buddy of mine trying to vote for Bill Waller and the machine continued to default back to Tate Reeves," Mississipian Taylor Rayburn tweeted along with the video on Aug. 27, the day of the vote. "He is not the only one having this issue." 

From what we can tell, the video is real. It garnered 87,000 views on Facebook and more than 11,000 retweets on Twitter

Experts we spoke to said the error shown in the viral video is a common problem with older voting devices, which are still used across the country.

"Around 40 states have voting machines that are a decade old or older," J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, told PolitiFact. "There are reports of machines misbehaving in this manner after almost every election." (Here is a video of a similar problem happening in Virginia in 2014.)

Mississippi’s Secretary of State released a statement saying three TSX model machines in three different precincts malfunctioned, and noted that 31 votes were cast before the flaw were discovered and the machines shut down. It’s unclear if the votes were erroneously recorded. The secretary’s office did not respond to our request for comment.

Officials in Lafayette County, Mississippi — where 19 votes were cast before the issue was reported — told a local NBC affiliate that their precinct’s machine worked properly when it was tested days before the election. But it was likely mishandled afterwards, they said, and "lost its calibration."

Election Systems & Software, the company that services Mississippi’s TSX machines, confirmed the culprit was faulty calibration — the technical explanation for what occurred in the viral video.

Older voting machines have both a transparent touchscreen, as well as a digital display that lies just underneath it. These two parts are connected by conductive membranes. When a device is properly calibrated, a voter presses the touchscreen and it causes the membranes to connect at the corresponding point on the display. 

But what if the touch screen and display aren’t aligned?

Then the machine is considered "out of calibration" — for a visual demonstration, look no further than the viral video. The voter pushes Waller’s name, but the click is registered at a higher spot on the display, specifically, next to Reeves’ name.

"It’s a different kind of touch sensor technology than modern devices like smartphones," Halderman explained. "Their screens need frequent, manual calibration in order to work properly." 

Anything from temperature changes, rough handling, or even just the passage of time can cause screens to lose calibration, Halderman said. He added that it was unlikely the malfunction resulted from malicious software being introduced into the machines, because hackers would probably strike "without leaving any obvious evidence."

Election security experts we spoke to said the error underscores the need for both an upgrade of old machines, as well as a more robust paper ballot system.

"This is why it’s important to have a verifiable paper ballot that serves as the official ballot," said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Mistakes do happen and machines break."

State legislatures vary in their approach to paper ballots. Thirty-seven states have laws on the books that require some form of paper balloting, while there is no such statutory obligation in 13 others. Mississippi is among six states that require voting machines to have a permanent paper record, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Democratic lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to garner bipartisan support for legislation that would mandate paper ballots and audits of all federal elections in every state. 

One outspoken advocate for such measures is Tom Burt, CEO of Election Systems & Software, the same company which services Mississippi’s TSX model machines.

"If Congress can pass legislation that requires a paper record for every voter and establishes a mandated security testing program for the people making voting machines, the general public’s faith in the process of casting a ballot can be restored," Burt wrote in a June op-ed in Roll Call. "And that’s not just a good thing, it’s essential to the future of America."