Election offices in Colorado are preparing to purchase new voting equipment following a process that involved cooperation between state and local election officials to identify and select the best products. Now, however, local officials are concerned about a new state requirement that could leave them with no choice in what system to buy. KOAA5 has more:
County clerks and election staffers from across the state are in Fort Collins this week for the Colorado County Clerks Association Winter Conference. Those officials will learn best practices and get updates on new election laws. They can also get demonstration of voting machines in action from multiple vendors. But a proposed rule change by Secretary of State Wayne Williams will soon prevent counties from buying their equipment anyone other than Dominion Voting.
“We believe that by working together as a state, we’re able to negotiate a better deal and we’ve actually achieved that, so far,” Williams said. “We’re in the middle of those contract negotiations but I’m optimistic it’s going to be a very good deal for taxpayers across the state.”
In addition to the bulk discount, Williams said instituting a Uniform Voting System will make it easier to train election officials. It will also gives voters a more common experience at the polls.
“The goal throughout this process has been to ensure the best possible experience for Colorado voters and to ensure the integrity of the process,” Williams said.
That proposal rankles some local officials, given that they are the ones actually making the purchase – and especially since some counties are already facing budget challenges:
There’s just one problem: the state isn’t buying the machines. That expense falls to the counties.
“I’m concerned about a monopoly in any form,” said Douglas County Clerk and Recorder Merlin Klotz. He thinks what the Secretary is doing flies in the face of state law.
“The law says the counties shall select,” Klotz said. “Well, if they’re only allowed one (vendor) to select from, that isn’t really a selection.”
Klotz said it is wrong to view the Secretary’s rule change as a form of competitive bidding since the state is not actually purchasing the equipment. In order to exclude the other vendors, the Secretary will essentially choose to only certify Dominion, despite the merits of other manufacturers.
Klotz believes that removing competitive bidding as a negotiating tool for counties takes away the incentive for vendors to improve their merchandise and keep service costs low. He also worries the Secretary’s rule will put a financial burden on cash-strapped rural counties.
“There are a number of small counties that are having trouble even making payroll, let alone shoving an additional expense out to them,” Klotz said.
Up until now, the process has been working fairly smoothly, with both levels of government coming together to test drive equipment and help make a selection. But some counties don’t want to be locked into a single choice:
Williams said the the counties will still have the ability to choose specific types of equipment to best suit their needs, so long as it all comes from Dominion. He also points out that the state spends around $2.5 million every year to help counties cover the cost of elections.
Public hearings and meetings have been held to discuss the rule change for several months. In fact, a handful of counties were even selected to “test drive” equipment from four different vendors during the last election in November.
El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman served on the Pilot Election Review Committee and said Dominion was a unanimous choice.
“They balanced a lot of considerations between cost, functionality, usability by our voters, just many many things went into it,” Broerman said.
However, that same committee also recommended in a 5-2 vote that the Secretary allow multiple vendors.
The dispute could (as many election law disputes do) end up in court:
Like [Douglas County’s] Klotz, the clerks in Adams, Garfield and Jefferson Counties all oppose the new rule. Klotz said his group plans to hold regulatory review of the new policy. They may also pursue legislative remedies or even litigation if it comes to that.
“It’s not a threat, but it’s saying this needs to be thought through a little bit better,” Klotz said. “We feel he made a wrong decision.”
As many as 20 counties are expected to buy new election equipment this year. Williams said if they choose to purchase the new Dominion systems, then they will be required to implement them in time for the June primaries to work out any kinks.
This is a disagreement worth watching – not just because this dispute could complicate purchase decisions in Colorado in an already-hectic election year. As more and more states confront the “impending crisis” in voting technology, the proper balance of local control and the state’s desire for standard or even uniform equipment, especially if the state is footing a significant part of the bill, is likely to recur.
Stay tuned …