Antitrust and Your Vote

March 9, 2010

New York Times Editorial

When the nation’s largest voting machine manufacturer, Election Systems and Software, acquired the voting machine business of Diebold, the nation’s second-largest manufacturer, it set off alarms for anyone who cares about election integrity. The combination meant that 70 percent of the nation’s voting machines would be provided by just one company.

The Justice Department has now announced that it intends to block certain parts of the deal on antitrust grounds. That is a very welcome step, but the department and Congress need to do more to protect the vote.

After the 2000 presidential election, and Florida’s hanging chads, states vowed to replace old-style voting machines with new and better technology. The electronic machines now in use across the country have their own serious problems. They are far too vulnerable to hackers, and unless they have voter-verifiable paper trails and careful audits their results are not trustworthy.

The Justice Department is right to try to block the deal between the voting machine makers. It was a clear violation of antitrust law and a clear threat to the public interest. Less competition would mean less choice for states and localities looking to buy and service voting machines — and even less incentive for industry to produce first-rate products. We hope a federal court approves the Justice Department’s decision and that Election Systems and Software quickly finds a buyer.

The Justice Department’s work should not end with blocking this one sale. It also needs to keep a close eye on widespread reports of anticompetitive behavior by Election Systems and Software and other vendors. It should look in particular at how Election Systems handles sales of service contracts for voting machines, which are a big revenue generator, that make it hard for other companies to compete.

Congress also should hold hearings to investigate that and other reports of anticompetitive behavior in the industry. It also should set strong standards for voting machines, including a federal requirement for paper trails and audits. The security of the vote is too important to leave those decisions up to local governments or an industry with a less-than-stellar track record.