Monopoly or Broken Market? Either Way, St. Charles, MO Can’t Buy New Voting Machines


[Image courtesy of thegreatilluminator]

The St. Charles, MO County Executive recently vetoed a $1.2 million contract for new voting machines requested by the elections director and approved by the county council.

Unlike his counterparts in some other county governments, he isn’t unhappy with the performance of the election director. Nor does he appear to have any issue with the new voting machines being sought or the company providing them under the contract.

Rather, he is concerned that the County only got one bid for the new machines, saying “[a]nytime we have $1.2 million in expenditures and only one bid, I’m going to be very suspicious.” Normally that would make sense, but here’s the problem: only one vendor (the one who got the contract – the contract that got vetoed) is certified to do business in the State of Missouri.

As a result of the various layers of certification and testing required by the federal and state government – combined with the consolidation in the market as federal dollars for new equipment have dwindled – many states’ only choice is to work with a single vendor or keep the old machines. To his credit, the County Executive understands this; he just doesn’t like the outcome:

Apparently, the federal government and secretary of state certification requirements have created a situation where a single provider is available to bid. As a result, the competitive bid process, designed to guarantee the taxpayers do not overpay, did not provide the necessary competition.

This case is absolutely chock-full of fascinating issues like the cost/benefit of certification and testing programs and the interplay of federal and state requirements, but I think the biggest takeaway from this story is the near-total lack of transparency in the voting technology market.

The Executive’s veto is essentially the result of an information failure; namely, whether the $1.2 million is a fair deal and in line with what other similar jurisdictions pay for similar technology. That’s information that we can and should be able to collect and make available – and to the extent state laws, vendor contract language or even a lack of capacity create obstacles to that goal we need to overcome them. This would open up the market in a time when current laws and circumstances are threatening to close it.

Currently, St. Charles is basically waiting for the federal and state government to certify more voting machines so any bid will be truly competitive. A better, faster (and I’d be willing to be bet cheaper) way to achieve the same goals would be to give the County Executive and his counterparts across the nation better access to information about what it costs to buy, operate and maintain their voting equipment.

3 Comments on "Monopoly or Broken Market? Either Way, St. Charles, MO Can’t Buy New Voting Machines"

  1. Matt Masterson | March 15, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply

    To blame the certification process for the lack of bidders is just not correct. There are systems already certified at the federal level that could and should be bidding in this instance. I am not an expert on the requirements for certification in MO but from looking at their laws and regulations it appears that all that is needed is for a system to have received approval from an EAC lab (not even EAC certification).

    Right now there are 3 systems that are maintained by vendors other than the one in question here that are certified to this level that could be purchased. It is convenient to attempt to blame certification and the process but the facts simply do not back this up.

    The real question is why vendors who have systems that are already certified did not bid on this contract? Was the bid process noticed and known to these other vendors? Is it true that only one company can sell systems in MO and if so why?

    Certification can and should be more efficient and therefore cheaper at both the federal and state level but it’s become an easy excuse in cases where perhaps it’s not a reason at all.

  2. Matt Masterson | March 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply

    Totally agree with your point. Election officials have no one to blame but ourselves for that. Budget and cost information is there if we want to put the effort in to compiling it and analyzing the costs.

    The point about the move from 2002 to 2005 is an interesting one. It seems pretty clear that vendors have done a cost benefit analysis and determined (with 2 exceptions) that 2005 testing is simply not worth it. Not enough states require it to force the market to it.

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