Board delays election upgrade

New voting machines are coming, but county officials need to figure out how to pay for them first.

A decision on whether Johnson County should buy new voting machines that provide both an electronic and paper record of votes won’t come until next year because officials need to determine how to pay for the machines. Johnson County Commissioners unanimously decided to hold off an any purchase, but all three commissioners agreed that new machines would eventually be needed.

The price tag for the new machines, along with the other equipment needed to run them, is nearly $1.1 million. The county will be able to save some money by trading in old machines, but how much they could get for the old equipment isn’t known yet.

The county spent $2.4 million purchasing 450 machines in 2003, paid for with money from the county’s savings, spread out over several years. This time the county is considering purchasing 250 machines, with fewer machines needed because of voting being consolidated at vote centers rather than at precincts.

With the new system officials are considering, the county would need to buy multiple voting machines for each vote center, a scanner for each site, electronic pollbooks connected to printers to check in voters and a large tabulator to count early and mail-in ballots. A tabulator alone is about $100,000. Each machine costs about $3,500, and multiple machines would be needed at the different sites. Each scanner would cost about $5,500. And each electronic pollbook with a printer costs about $2,000, though the county’s longtime vendor — Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software — offered to include those for free if the county buys a new system.

The biggest difference with the new system is that it also keeps a paper log of each vote. Requiring voting machines to produce a paper trail has been discussed at both the state and federal level, and county officials are watching those proposals, Higdon said. The paper vote count provides another safeguard to make sure votes are being recorded accurately, though the county hasn’t had any issues with its current machines, Higdon said.

The main concerns from commissioners are how to cover the cost of paying for the new machines and when they should be purchased. One option is to phase in the new machines by spreading out the purchase over the course of several years, commissioner Brian Baird said.

But that option would create logistical issues for the county, as officials would have challenges in gathering and consolidating data from multiple machines running separate programs, deputy clerk Reagan Higdon said.

The county could borrow money for the machines with the next overall equipment purchase, commissioner Ron West said. He favored waiting a year or two because he expects the price of the voting machines will drop as they become more commonly used.

One challenge with getting new machines is making sure voters and poll workers have an opportunity to get used to the new systems prior to the 2020 presidential election, deputy clerk Trena McLaughlin said. In 2018, voters will cast ballots in both statewide and countywide elections, but 2019 will only have municipal elections, for which turnout is usually far lower, she said.

Election officials would like to get the new machines in time for the 2018 elections to allow voters to adjust to the new system before the next presidential election, Higdon said.

West wanted to start using the new machines in 2019 because the smaller election would allow any kinks to be worked out more easily, he said.

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Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.