LINCOLN, Neb. — When the federal government offered money to help states buy new vote-counting machines in 2002, Nebraska officials jumped at the chance.
Nebraska used its share of the funding to create a statewide election system with new equipment for all 93 counties — including some remote, low-income areas that still hand-counted their ballots.
Now, with machines that are outdated and increasingly difficult to repair, Nebraska lawmakers are largely on their own.
"There's no question it's going to be a very challenging legislative session in terms of appropriations," Secretary of State John Gale said in an interview.
Nebraska purchased its current equipment in 2006 with funding from the Help America Vote Act, a federal law passed in response to the 2000 presidential election.
The state received another $3.5 million through the law earlier this year, but state officials say it isn't enough to cover the estimated $12.6 million in replacement costs. For now, state officials are using the federal money as an emergency fund to replace machines that suddenly stop working.
Gale, who leaves office in January, said he hopes lawmakers act sooner rather than later to address the problem.
"There's a little bit of wiggle room going into 2020, but if nothing gets accomplished by then, we will be in more of a crisis mode," he said.
Lawmakers have discussed the need to replace voting machines but haven't moved forward due to a struggling farm economy and several years of tight state budgets. When they reconvene in January, legislators will have to balance the state's finances in the face of a projected $95 million revenue shortfall.
Upgrading the state's election machines should be considered a top priority for state officials, according to the Nebraska Information Technology Commission, a state agency that analyzes whether new technology is needed. The commission designated the upgrades as "mission critical" in a report issued this month to lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts.
"The need to replace existing equipment is clear," one project reviewer wrote in the report.
Nebraska is part of a growing push by states to replace old vote-counting equipment that has become more prone to breakdowns and glitches. Some machines have aged to the point that replacement parts are scarcer, said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As in Nebraska, the major challenge for most states is finding ways to pay for the technology, said Dylan Lynch, an elections policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission offers funding, but generally not enough to cover the full cost of an upgrade. Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania have all signaled an interest recently in buying new machines.
"A lot of states have recognized that they have old equipment and have to do something," Lynch said.
Nebraska lawmakers said updating the equipment could help avoid the problems encountered in states like Florida, where tight races for governor and U.S. Senate forced a machine recount in this month's election.
In Palm Beach County, antiquated vote-tallying machines overheated and forced a recount of 174,000 early voting ballots. The county's election supervisor had to fly in technicians to help. A federal judge presiding over several recount lawsuits criticized the state's election officials for failing to anticipate election problems and turning Florida into "the laughing stock of the world."
Nebraska and many Florida counties use the same election equipment purchased from the same Omaha-based company, said Nebraska state Sen. John Murante.
"It is absolutely important and urgent that new election equipment get implemented as soon as possible," said Murante, the chairman of a special election-technology committee. "The problem is only going to get worse."
Murante said the old technology is slower than newer models and stops every time an irregular ballot is detected. The newest vote-counting equipment can separate irregular ballots into a different pile without disrupting its count, which speeds up the process.
Many of Nebraska's smallest counties can't afford the technology upgrades, and some still rely on antiquated technology, such as 1990s-era Zip drives, to help tabulate votes.
In Douglas County, which includes Omaha, election officials faced election night delays in 2016 because one of the office machines stopped working. The outcome of the tight race between then-U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford and challenger Don Bacon wasn't confirmed until early Wednesday morning.
Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said the general election went smoothly earlier this month. But he acknowledged that his one newer-model vote-counting machine, purchased by the county, runs faster and more efficiently than the older equipment paid for by the state.
"Voters have nothing to worry about with the current equipment we have," he said. "But at some point in time in the future, we're going to need to look at options."