Arkansas Chooses New Statewide Voting System

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[Image courtesy of all-flags-world]

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how county clerks in Arkansas were looking forward to a new voting system but worried about plans to upgrade the system before the state’s March 2016 presidential primary.

While much of that uncertainty remains, at least they now know what machines they’re going to get after an announcement by the Secretary of State yesterday – though even that decision is raising some question about costs. Arkansas Online has more:

Secretary of State Mark Martin has decided to purchase a statewide, integrated voting system, including new voting equipment, through a Nebraska-based company although its proposal costs millions more than systems offered by two other companies.

The company, Elections Systems & Software (ES&S), submitted a proposal costing $29,928,868; California-based Unisyn Voting Solutions submitted $24,407,805; and Austin, Texas-based Hart InterCivic proposed $18,789,997, Martin spokesman Chris Powell said Monday.

When it requested proposals from companies, Martin’s office said they couldn’t exceed $30 million.

“The primary factor in the selection of ES&S was capabilities,” Powell said.

Elections Systems & Software’s “system met every requirement that we asked for,” Powell explained in an email. “Also, we felt that ES&S would be able to implement a new system in a more timely manner.”

Martin is a Republican from Prairie Grove who is serving his second term.

The secretary of state hasn’t yet signed a contract with Elections Systems & Software, Powell said.

“This was not a bidding process. This was a request for proposal, and the secretary selected a proposed system. Whenever funding becomes available and we are prepared to purchase the system, a contract will be drafted and signed at that time, ” he said.

Of course, just identifying the vendor and a potential cost still leaves some very key variables – namely, delivery schedule and cost – though the Secretary’s spokesman suggested that fast-tracking the implementation is no longer on the table as the state continues to work on funding the purchase:

Powell said Monday that the secretary of state’s office doesn’t plan to implement the new system before the 2016 primary…

Powell [also] said Monday that “we are continuing the process of finding a funding stream to purchase the new system.”

Asked when the new system would be installed, Powell said, “There is no target date for installation at this time. As I said before, funding is still not available. Therefore, until funding can be secured, we cannot implement the new system.”

Also not clear is whether there will be any challenge to the award from companies who were not selected, at least one of whom felt the process was not fully open given ES&S’ history in the state:

In April, an official for Unisyn Voting Solutions said the request for proposal issued by Martin’s office on April 15 favored Elections Systems & Software — a claim disputed by both Martin’s office and Elections Systems & Software.

Elections Systems & Software retained Legacy Consulting — whose senior partner Doug Matayo is Martin’s former chief deputy secretary of state — for “consulting purposes related to advising ES&S on strategic growth and planning, ” an Elections Systems & Software spokesman has said. Martin has said that Matayo hadn’t contacted his staff about its plans to purchase new voting equipment.

In 2005, Martin’s predecessor — Bryant Democrat Charlie Daniels– also purchased voting equipment through Election Systems & Software for about $15 million and also awarded the company a $4.9 million contract to provide the state’s voter registration system.

Martin’s office re-signed a contract with Election Systems & Software for the voter registration system a few years ago, according to his office …

Martin’s office extended the deadline for companies to submit proposals from May 4 until May 12 and changed its specifications for the voting equipment after officials for at least two companies said certain requirements in the request for proposals favored Elections Systems & Software.

While Elections Systems & Software has employed Matayo’s consulting firm, Unisyn Voting Solutions hired the lobbying firm of Mullenix & Associates of Hot Springs, which includes former Republican state Rep. Ted Mullenix of Hot Springs and his wife, Julie Mullenix.

This story illuminates several key points:

  1. procurement of any kind (not just voting systems) takes a variety of forms and doesn’t always go to the lowest bidder – and can change based on contract negotiations;
  2. even a seemingly-final decision can be held up by concerns about the process used to choose the winner; and
  3. the existence (or lack thereof) of funding to support the contract can make some of these discussions moot.

Arkansas’s very public process is just one of many that will be underway across the nation in the next year or so as states and localities try to address what the PCEA called an “impending crisis” in voting technology.

While I don’t expect there to be lots of twists and turns, it is a safe bet that the current plan in Arkansas will change at least once as details about, funding, cost, delivery or timing come into sharper focus.

Stay tuned.

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