Not So Fast, Please: Arkansas Counties Concerned About SEC Primary, SoS’ Quick Pace on Voting Tech Changes

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Arkansas’ Secretary of State is moving ahead on a plan to upgrade the state’s election technology but some counties are concerned that the process is moving too fast. Arkansas Online has more:

The Pulaski County Election Commission is questioning whether Secretary of State Mark Martin should delay his plans to replace the state’s voting machines by the March 1 primary election and instead wait until 2017 to overhaul the voting machines in the state’s 75 counties.

Martin’s office has received three bids from voting machine equipment companies in response to his request for proposals …

The secretary of state’s office is considering replacing voting equipment statewide “with a sole-source integrated voting system allowing for automation and full integration between polling place equipment and voter registration system(s),” according to a copy of the request-for-proposal released by Martin’s office.

These pieces of equipment would allow voters to mark their ballots on electronic screens or to cast paper ballots.

If the project succeeds, the vendor would be responsible for all replacement, installation, training, testing and maintenance no later than March 1, the request-for-proposal states. The maximum expenditure for the project would be $30 million, the secretary of state said.

The complicating factor is the state’s recent decision to move up its presidential preference primary for the 2016 cycle:

Arkansas will participate in a March 1 regional presidential primary with several Southern states in what its supporters are calling the SEC primary. (The SEC is the Southeastern Conference, an athletic conference of universities in most of the Southern states).

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican signed legislation Friday to move Arkansas’ primary election for president and other offices from May 24 to March 1 for 2016.

The change is raising concerns for the election official in the state’s largest county:

Bryan Poe, director of elections for the Pulaski County [Little Rock] Election Commission, told Rob Hammons, elections division director for the secretary of state’s office, in a letter dated May 14 that “we believe that the current timeline for the replacement of voting machines might be a bit aggressive.”

The replacement of the voting machines is going to have a major impact on how elections are conducted in Arkansas, and “how we as a county election commission are able to perform our duties,” Poe wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act …

“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,” Poe said.

“That said, we would like reassurances from you that this process can be implemented smoothly, that there will be enough time to deploy the equipment, train the commissions and their staff on the use of the equipment and accompanying software, to train pollworkers on the new equipment, and to educate voters on any changes in procedures that may be made necessary by the adoption of new equipment,” Poe said.

That position is seconded by the statewide association supporting county officials:

The Arkansas County Election Commissions Association recommends that delivery, training and implementation of the new voting equipment be scheduled after the March 1 primary election and any runoff election, said association President Stuart Soffer, who is a Jefferson County election commissioner and Republican member of the state Board of Election Commissioners.

“The exception should be those counties, such as Washington County, who want to be the pioneers in implementing the new equipment. That way the vendor can devote substantial resources to a few counties for the March election, and after the kinks are ironed out, turn their efforts to the remaining counties,” said Soffer.

“Early voting begins on Feb. 15, so why jump through hoops and rush the process if you don’t have to?”

Oddly enough, this may end up being a non-issue, thanks to another familiar problem: uncertainty about funding.

Martin spokesman Chris Powell declined Friday to respond to Poe’s proposal.

“We appreciate input from all of our county officials as we go through this process,” Powell said.

He said the secretary of state’s office doesn’t have “a target date” at this point for deciding what company it will purchase voting equipment through.

“The secretary of state’s office is evaluating a number of financing options,” Powell said.

“At this time, our office has received no funding for a statewide integrated voting system. We continue to work to find a viable funding [stream] and are not interested in a lease-purchase option,” he said.

To be sure, it is absolutely a good thing that Arkansas is making moves to address what the PCEA calls the “impending crisis” in voting technology. Still, as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up (with seemingly a new declared candidate every day), we will soon be reaching the point where the desire to implement substantial changes in the future will run up against the present need to ensure each Election Day (especially high-profile ones involving presidential candidates) runs smoothly.

This will be a story to watch in every state as 2016 approaches. Stay tuned.

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