Sebastian County Voting Equipment Discussions Spawn Headline of the Year: “Polling-Gear Costs Vex County Exec”



[Image courtesy of flickr user courthouselover]

Usually when I notice or comment on the headline to an election piece, I do so because it’s misleading or flat-out inaccurate. That’s not a problem for a recent piece in Arkansas Online, which summarizes the current voting equipment discussions in Sebastian County (Ft. Smith), AR thusly: POLLING-GEAR COSTS VEX COUNTY EXEC.

Even better, the article is terrific, too:

The county judge for Sebastian County asked the county Election Commission on Wednesday to consider reducing the number of polling places to trim the cost of buying new voting machines.

In the meeting, David Hudson also told commissioners that reprogramming and using early voting machines at polling places on Election Day could reduce the cost of buying new voting machines by $100,000.

That would be a big savings for the county, he said, “Because, right now, we don’t got it.”

Hudson told the commissioners that he didn’t know how the county would come up with the nearly $400,000 it will cost to buy the additional 83 electronic voting machines the county will need to meet its target of 250. The secretary of state’s office is paying for 167 other machines as part of a pilot program in which the county is participating.

Sebastian County is one of four counties in the pilot program testing new equipment that Secretary of State Mark Martin decided last month to purchase for the state from Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems and Software.

The reason Sebastian is in this position is that it is one of four counties chosen to participate in the pilot program sponsored by the Secretary of State. The problem is that even with state assistance, the county isn’t sure how to cover its costs:

Hudson said he wants to present the Quorum Court with financing options for the equipment at its July 21 meeting. He said the Quorum Court hasn’t seen any figures since Rob Hammons, director of the Election Division in the secretary of state’s office, asked the Quorum Court last month to participate in the pilot program.

Hudson said he expected the Quorum Court to discuss financing options July 21 but not to make any funding decisions until its August meeting.

As part of the pilot program, Hammons offered the county $986,815 to buy 167 voting machines. The county also will receive 95 digital poll books and two laptop computers to tabulate votes under the program.

At the meeting last month, Hudson told Quorum Court members that they could take $200,000 from the county general fund balance to pay half of the needed $400,000 and possibly finance the remaining purchases over five years.

But in a June 26 memo to the members, he said he could not recommend taking the $200,000 from the general fund balance. Whether the county could consider a lease-purchase deal depended on the annual payment and how much the county would save in ballot printing costs, he said in the memo.

In trying to make ends meet, the county is considering one familiar approach – reducing the number of polling places:

Election commissioners said there are polling places in the county that have few voters and could be combined with other locations to reduce the amount of voting equipment required.

They suggested consolidating all four of Greenwood’s voting sites into one, for example, because all of them are within a half-mile of one another.

They told Hudson that they will meet again soon to look at how many polling places could potentially be closed, and the cost savings that could generate.

Judge Hudson has another idea, though – one that led the vendor to raise a caution flag:

Hudson said making the 25 machines earmarked for early voting available at polling places on Election Day would save the county about $100,000 because the county would be able to buy 25 fewer machines.

Craig Seibert, a representative of Election Systems and Software who was at the meeting to demonstrate the new digital poll books, said a danger in reusing early voting machines on Election Day is that the early votes in them would have to be cleared out before the machines could be reprogrammed. If something went wrong, he said, the early votes cleared out of the machines could not be recovered.

The other challenge will be deciding not just on a course of action but on a target deadline – a point on which some commissioners are in more of a hurry than Hudson:

[State official] Hammons told the Quorum Court last month that he did not believe the new voting equipment would be available for use until the March 1 primary election.

But election commissioners said Wednesday that they would like to get the equipment in time to test it in the Nov. 10 special election Greenwood is holding on whether to extend a 0.75 percent sales tax for 10 years.

This mix of challenges and constraints will sound familiar to other election officials nationwide facing the same decisions – and I wouldn’t be surprised if the headline or some variation thereof couldn’t be used to describe identical discussions in other communities across America.

If you’re an election official, here’s hoping you can stay unvexed. Either way, stay tuned.

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