Let’s Make a Deal: Muscogee County Gets Upgraded Machines at Bargain Price

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[Image via georgiainfo]

One underappreciated aspect of an election administrator’s job is the need to operate within a tight budget, meaning they are always on the lookout for ways to save money. In Muscogee County (Columbus), GA an employee’s relocation and some resourceful fundraising helped the election office get upgraded voting machines for next to nothing. The Ledger-Enquirer has more:

The fact that Maigen Skelton Ogle got married last year and moved to Denver was a huge win for the taxpayers of Muscogee County.

Ogle, a Harris County native, worked three years in the Muscogee County Elections and Registration office, said Director Nancy Boren. As she prepared to marry Chris Ogle, a former TSYS employee, she had to find a job in Denver where he had moved. She applied for a similar elections job in Adams County, Colo.

It worked out. She left Columbus last August and started work in Denver in early September.

Not long after Ogle got there, she noticed that there was a lot of surplus election equipment because Colorado mails ballots to voters. Ogle knew that it was the same Elections Systems and Software equipment that was used in Muscogee County.

“It was a newer version of what we used in Muscogee County,” Ogle said.

That discovery led to a phone call and a surprisingly easy negotiation:

[Ogle] alerted Boren and told her new boss, Elections Coordinator Christy Coburn, about Columbus.

“She said she would love to talk to Nancy,” Ogle said of Coburn.

“I called Christy and told her I was interested in purchasing some of her surplus equipment,” Boren said. “I told her to give me a price and I would see how much I could afford.”

When Coburn called back, she had a price.

“She said you can have it all for $10 — if you come and get it,” Boren said.

That was not a difficult decision for Boren. All of the Adams County voting machines were the same type as the ones used in Muscogee County, but they were 2007 technology rather than the 2001 machines that the county has been using.

The next step was to enlist the assistance of the state’s voting technology experts:

Boren contacted Merle King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University. That organization does research and tests election equipment to help the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. She also called the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.

King was having independent conversations with Colorado state elections officials about acquiring some of the surplus equipment when he discovered that Boren had a contact in the elections office in Denver.

“The gift of Nancy is she moves faster than the state as a whole and she was able to negotiate the agreement,” King said. “As soon as we found that out, we immediately indicated our support for that and I have been working with Nancy for a couple of months…”

“It is a huge deal because it extends the life of the voting system and has tremendous value for the taxpayers in Muscogee County,” King said. “She was able to acquire the equipment at very little cost. In terms of bang for the taxpayers buck, Nancy has done a tremendous job.”

Muscogee’s “find” ended up benefiting other counties and the state as well – for very little cost, thanks to cost-sharing and some community support:

Boren was able to acquire was 700 TSX voting machines of which Musocgee County got 400, the state 200 and Richmond County/Augusta 100. Boren also acquired 154 optical scanners that are used for mail-in ballots. Muscogee County had five in use and Boren was able to add 10 more to the inventory, which should speed up the counting process.

The nearly free machines did come with a cost, and Boren worked to offset the impact of that. The shipping from Colorado to Georgia cost $6,000, which the state, Muscogee County and Richmond County split three ways. The new machines also came with $60,000 in licensing fees. Boren applied to the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley for a grant to cover those costs. The city was awarded a $40,000 grant, which she coupled with a $6,000 grant from the state. The updated equipment, valued at $1.2 million, ended up costing Muscogee County about $16,000.

The new voting machines, as far as what the voter will see, are similar to the older ones. They are all being tested and certified this week and will be first used in the Nov. 8 General Election.

The difference is the new ones are faster with more memory, which will help elections officials, King said.

“It is a definite step up,” he said.

This story suggests that states and localities may end up being able to help one another with “secondhand” election equipment sales as part of the overall push to upgrade voting technology. However, this kind of fit between jurisdictions – not to mention the windfall of almost-new equipment available because of Colorado’s shift in its election model – is not common enough to indicate that the resale market can be a significant factor in addressing the nation’s “impending crisis” in voting technology.

Still, kudos to Muscogee and Adams for coming together on this purchase – and a tip of the electiongeek cap to Maigen Skelton Ogle for her part in helping the two counties “make a deal”.

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