I. In Focus This Week
In the market for new voting equipment?
Three things to do when buying new voting equipment
By David Levine
Special to electionlineWeekly
As documented in a number of recent research and media reports, many jurisdictions continue to use outdated voting equipment, which portends trouble.
Outdated machines are more likely to break down, when they do it can be hard to find spare parts for them, and they often have memory cards with relatively little storage space, to name just a few issues.
Despite these problems, it can be hard to procure new equipment. Voting machines are not cheap, and the federal government has not demonstrated a willingness to assist with these purchases as it did following the 2000 presidential election. That means states and localities need to find the money themselves.
Here are three steps jurisdictions and/or states can take to make the process a little less painful:
Form a Coalition to Share the Work and Achieve Economies of Scale
As the report, “The Business of Voting: Market Structure and Innovation in the Elections Technology Industry”, and other publications have mentioned, jurisdictions -- particularly smaller ones -- should consider forming coalitions to buy new voting equipment.
Forming coalitions allows jurisdictions to pool money and manpower to research new voting equipment. Pooling resources also gives jurisdictions more leverage when purchasing new voting equipment – a larger buy often (though not always) leads to a better price and better terms.
That is partly because coalition purchasing is also beneficial to vendors. Vendors prefer larger orders of the same voting equipment, which reduces their own per-unit costs. The relatively fixed costs of contracting and developing software encourage vendors to discount prices on large orders.
There are many ways to form buying coalitions. If a few jurisdictions within the same state, or different states, are interested in voting systems with similar features, they can pursue a coalition amongst themselves. And a state itself can become involved -- in forming and administering a coalition, providing personnel and expertise, appropriating funds to help jurisdictions purchase new equipment, post-purchase support and training, and sharing information on common problems (and their solutions).
Collaborate with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has a great deal of helpful information for jurisdictions purchasing new voting equipment.
For example, the EAC’s “Ten Things to Know About Selecting a Voting System” is an excellent overview of factors to consider when purchasing a new system. These include applicable federal, state, and local laws, the stakeholders who will be involved in the acquisition process, and the lifetime cost of owning a voting system (which is important to know, and easy to overlook).
As part of its clearinghouse function, the EAC has a voting technology procurement webpage that includes reports and studies, and sample RFPs, from various states and jurisdictions. These documents cover a wide range of technologies and situations – consulting them is a key step (and perhaps the starting point) for jurisdictions buying new equipment. They will save time and money, and inevitably suggest new ideas to include in a voting technology procurement.
Finally, the EAC has an experienced staff, many of whom worked for local and/or state election bodies before joining the agency. Due to its expanding role in assisting jurisdictions with voting technology procurements, there are very few procurement issues it hasn’t seen. And not only does it have useful ideas on how to resolve issues, its advice comes without charge.
Get Good Professional Help
Work with an attorney who is familiar with public procurements, and ideally with procuring new voting equipment. As the EAC and others have noted, a good RFP gives you the legal leverage to ensure that your new voting system does what you need. The only way to ensure you have this leverage is to ensure you have an attorney with experience in the procurement process who will know the terms to ask for and how to write them.
An attorney who has experience negotiating the purchase of new voting equipment can be helpful in a number of respects that go beyond classic legal issues like breach and warranties and indemnification. She (or he) can help negotiate the maintenance contracts you’ll want to take care of the voting machines; the purchase or lease of space to store the machines if necessary; and vendor satisfaction of pre-requisites to bidding, such as state and/or federal certification.
An attorney (or experienced consultant) can also help craft provisions that directly reduce the cost of purchasing voting equipment. To cite one example, if your existing equipment is not totally useless you can try to negotiate for the vendor to buy back your current voting equipment as part of the deal to purchase new voting equipment, which will reduce the effective price of the new equipment and help you get rid of your old voting equipment easily and efficiently. The concept isn’t hard to grasp, but the language can be tricky.
An adviser can also help jurisdictions “see” the actual price of voting equipment over the long term. Cash-strapped jurisdictions have been known to buy from the lowest bidder without recognizing or understanding that the purchase price is only part of the cost of equipment, and that a system may be inexpensive up front but very expensive in the long run, as the equipment gets older and needs increased maintenance.
Finally, a word on the universal problem of stakeholders who question the need for new equipment – “Our elections have gone [pretty] smoothly to date; why shell out money when we don’t have to?” An adviser can help here, too, pointing out (with real life examples) the need to purchase new equipment to continue having reliable elections into the future. It is widely recognized that after 10-15 years voting equipment presents additional risks no matter how well it has been maintained. Memory constraints, maintenance cost escalation, security vulnerabilities – you don’t need a crystal ball to decide how to act, but an adviser with experience across jurisdictions can often be more persuasive to stakeholders than officials (even trusted and respected ones) with whom they have been working for years.
(David Levine is an Election Management Consultant who has administered county, state, federal and private sector elections; developed election policy for non-profit organizations; and monitored elections in other countries. His expertise includes voter registration, election administration, poll worker training, outreach, research design and evaluation, voting system standards, logic and accuracy testing, post-election audits, voting accessibility, evaluating proposals and voting technology.)
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