I. In Focus This Week
The rise of the machines
Many states, localities get new voting equipment for 2016
By M. Mindy Moretti
While issues like early voting, voter registration and voter ID have certainly grabbed the headlines of late, another elections issue will literally be in front thousands of voters in 2016 — new voting systems.
Nationwide many states and counties are moving to new voting systems for the first time in more than a decade in advance of the 2016 election cycle.
For some jurisdictions the switch to a new voting system was mandated by state legislatures that wanted to move to paper-based systems.
For others, it’s a matter of age.
Many states and counties replaced their voting machines following the 2002 election and in a world where people replace their phones every two years and personal computers almost as frequently, 10+-year old voting machines are, well, old.
Although budgeting and procurement are certainly taking center stage now, soon enough it will be training and voter education. It’s a lot to get done with an election calendar that grows shorter as more and more states jockey for position with their elections calendars.
In Maryland, which has been DRE (direct recording electronic, aka “touchscreen”) statewide since 2006, all 23 counties and Baltimore City are now moving to a paper-based optical scan system which was legislated by the General Assembly in 2007, but not funded until 2014.
The state has entered into a $28.1 million leasing agreement with ES&S that includes precinct-based scanners, ballot marking devices, high-speed scanners and personnel support.
Marylanders will see the new system for the first time at the April 26, 2016 primary.
Unlike many other states, Maryland actually moved its primary back by several weeks to avoid early voting conflicts. Even without the extra couple of week, Nikki Charlson, deputy director of the Maryland State Board of Elections said the counties and state will be ready.
“Later this summer and into the fall, extensive, hand-on training will be provided to the local election officials,” Charlson said. “SBE and the local election officials will work together to educate voters. There will be a statewide contract for public education and outreach (e.g., message development, production of materials, media buys, personnel to conduct outreach events).”
And although voters won’t see the new system until April 2016 — the current DRE machines are being warehoused should they need to be used for a special election between now and the new system’s launch — the state and local elections boards have scheduled statewide mock election for the fall.
Following the 2014 election, Montgomery County, Indiana has no back-up equipment left and the county’s machines are so old parts are no longer available. According to the Journal Review, County Clerk Jennifer Bentley was able to lobby the county council for the necessary funds to buy new equipment.
“If we don’t have something by the next county election, it could become a major problem,” Bentley told the paper.
Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin is considering requiring counties to purchase new voting equipment in preparation for 2016.
“The equipment, previously purchased in 2005 is nearing the end of its life cycle. It is just a time thing,” explained Chris Powell, communications manager for the secretary of state’s office. “At this time, we have two vendors in Arkansas. Three vendors submitted proposals for a new system. We are waiting for the secretary’s decision to move forward on any new system.”
Some local elections officials have expressed concerns about the timing of the system change. In a letter to Rob Hammons, state elections director from Pulaski County Elections Director Bryan Poe, Poe wrote:
"We feel that implementing such a change in 2017, during off year elections, would be a more prudent course of action that would minimize these disruptions and have the added benefit of providing both you and us with more time to plan the transition, identify issues and solicit and evaluate additional voting system vendors…"
Powell said the concerns from local elections officials will be taken into consideration by Martin during his decision-making process.
In addition, Powell noted that at this time, it is the intent for the state to cover the costs of the new equipment.
“If the state purchases a new system, then the state and vendor will be responsible for training the first year,” Powell said. “The state would also be responsible for voter education. If localities purchased their own, then they would be responsible.”
With potentially thousands, even millions of first time and “casual” voters will hit the polls in 2016 and what impact new technology will have on a smooth Election Day experience, not only for voters, but also poll workers and election officials remains to be seen.
“Although some jurisdictions will be deploying new voting systems for the first time in a decade or more, it's useful to remember that every election brings new voters,” said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting. “They face a voting system they have never used before because they are new to the process, not because the equipment is new to the polling place.”
Smith said, good plain-language instructions can help, as well as a video walk-through of the process posted at the elections website and on social media. She cited Orange County, California’s Facebook page as a good example of a good way to use social media.
In Virginia, some voters got an unexpected early peek at new voting systems this week when some localities were forced to move to new equipment after the state decertified the WinVote system.
Based on news reports — or more importantly the lack thereof — and according to Edgardo Cortes, director of the Virginia State Board of Elections, things went well with the limited roll out of the new system.
“Everything went incredibly smooth on Tuesday. All polling places opened on time and without incident. The Department did not receive any voter complaints about equipment issues this Tuesday,” Cortes said. “In addition to the 10 localities that previously had WinVote machines, Virginia Beach also used new equipment for the first time this past Tuesday. Election officers around the state were pleased with the ease of use of the new equipment and the greatly reduced amount of time that closing the precincts took at the end of the night. The last precinct was reported to us by 9:45pm.”
While there is not statewide mandate to move to new voting systems before 2016, Cortes said the state is encouraging all localities, especially those that use DRE machines to transition to new equipment in advance of next year.
New voting equipment won’t just be in the front-of-the-house so-to-speak either. Some states and counties are purchasing new equipment that speeds up the voting process back at the elections office.
The South Dakota State Board of Elections recently approved the use of new equipment for upcoming elections that some local elections officials are eager to see put into use.
Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz told the Black Hills Pioneer that his office is interested in using newly approved equipment for counting absentee ballots. He told the paper the new equipment could help eliminate human error.
And it wouldn’t be a story about voting machines and presidential elections without mentioning Florida. Several jurisdictions in the Sunshine state are updating their voting systems this year including Hernando County.
Voters will still fill in bubbles on paper ballots, but the county has entered into a new contract with Dominion Voting Systems to move to a universal vote tabulator.
According to the Hernando Sun, precinct clerks that have seen the new equipment seem pleased. The equipment is schedule for delivery this fall with mock elections planned to test it before the March 15 primary.
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