Colorado’s new voting-machine mandates irk cash-strapped counties
“And who’s going to pay for this?” — Jefferson County Commissioner Libby Szabo
Secretary of State Wayne Williams is enforcing a 2009 law that will require all 64 counties to replace some of their voting machines with equipment from a single vendor, Dominion Voting Systems.
Voting equipment across Colorado’s 64 counties will have to be replaced in the next two years in order to comply with requirements of a 2009 state law. And Secretary of State Wayne Williams just designated one company, Dominion Voting Systems, as the sole vendor for all the needed gear.
The transition is going to be expensive, especially for rural counties that haven’t seen the economic boom experienced across the Front Range. County officials argue forcing them to use one vendor — and not the cheapest — may violate the law and sane fiscal management.
The problem Colorado faces is that the current voting systems are nearing the end of their practical use, Williams told The Colorado Independent. Machines purchased between 2002 and 2006 and paid for by the federal Help America Vote Act are now antiquated. Software is out of date and unsupported. Counties struggle to verify election results. And some of the systems are so labor intensive clerks and staff have to scan one ballot at a time, every 6 to 10 seconds.
Clerks are now asking: Why fix a computer-based system that has largely been left in the dust by Colorado’s mail-in elections?
The machines, though hardly used, are critical for voters who register on Election Day. The American Association of People with Disabilities in 2004 argued electronic voting machines are the only way that a disabled voter can cast a secret and independent vote.
When Colorado counties bought new systems between 2002 and 2006, equipment came from four companies: Premier, Sequoia, Hart and ES&S. The first two companies are no longer in business. They were acquired by Dominion Voting Systems in the last few years. Hart is used in 47 out of the state’s 64 counties.
Implementing the new voting systems will cost around $9 million, although Williams said that his staff is negotiating with Dominion for a lower price tag.
But the state won’t be paying for the machines. The counties will, and some say they can’t afford it.
County clerks and commissioners were warned three years ago to plan for the transition. Many have already budgeted for the new systems, said Williams, dismissing the clerks’ concerns about cost.
But another issue plagues Williams’ demand that all counties purchase machines from Dominion: Does he have the authority to mandate a single vendor?
According to the 2009 state law, the Secretary of State has the authority to approve purchases of new voting systems. Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert told The Independent that their interpretation is that it also gives him authority to choose a vendor.
This particularly bothers bigwigs in Jefferson County, one of several counties that piloted four new voting systems: Dominion, Hart, Clear Ballot and ES&S. Among the four vendors, ES&S, also tested in Teller County, was the least expensive.
Jefferson County Commissioner Libby Szabo told The Independent that her county recommended Colorado use the ES&S system, though hers was the only county to do so. Dominion was recommended by everyone on an advisory committee deciding which system to adopt. Hart, whose current voting systems are in place in 47 mostly-rural counties in Colorado, also received high praise from many.
Szabo questions whether Williams can require the counties to buy from Dominion — particularly since it costs more than ES&S, and taxpayers expect their elected officials to spend public money “in the most effective and efficient way.”
In true Colorado local-control form, Szabo said that what works for one county might not work for another.
She’s “baffled” by Williams’ decision to require all counties to use one vendor.
“When you have one vendor, that creates a monopoly, and they can charge whatever they want.” She also said that mandating one vendor flies in the face of Republican free-market principles.
“And who’s going to pay for this?” she asked.
It’s certainly not the state. The Uniform Voting System Advisory Committee said no vendor they reviewed would be able to meet all new election requirements. The committee, headed by Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson, was neutral on just how many vendors should be selected. The committee was clear on one point: The state should be paying for those new voting systems — not cash-strapped counties.
The 2009 law that mandates the new 2017 post-election audits included an estimate of costs — sort of. The fiscal note said counties wouldn’t have to buy new machines to be compliant. But fiscal notes hold no legal power.
Williams responded that state law mandates election costs be covered by counties, not the state.
There’s one other issue raised by rural county clerks in the move to a new voting system: the cost to purchase and maintain systems that no one uses.
On Election Night 2015, Hayle Johnson, the Jackson County Clerk and Recorder, finished hand counting the 810 ballots submitted by her county’s residents.
Every ballot was mailed in.
Not one person came to the voting center to cast a ballot. The cost to update and maintain the machines that nobody used: $21,000. That doesn’t include $7,000 in license fees paid in 2015, also for the machines that nobody used.
Johnson told The Independent that even if one voter needed the electronic voting machine, the expense would be worth it. But she worries about how she’ll pay for another voting system that is likely to sit untouched.
Similarly, Douglas County Clerk and Recorder Merlin Klotz pointed out in a letter to the Secretary of State’s Pilot Election Review Committee that over the past decade, in-person voting in Dougco has gone from 61 percent in 2006 to 1 percent last month.
Corrine Lengel, clerk and recorder for Lincoln County, initially volunteered to purchase a new system for the 2016 election, regardless of which vendor was chosen.
Now, she’s rethinking that decision.
After listening to an early December hearing on the results of the pilots, “I realized that each of the systems still has bugs that need to be worked out,” and that buying a new voting system for a presidential election year is a bad idea.
Williams hasn’t set a deadline by which any county has to buy a new voting system.
“All counties can continue to use their existing systems as long as those systems are in good working order and certified for use in Colorado,” he said.
But based on another statement by Williams, it’s clear that 2016 will be the last time counties will be able to use their current voting systems, and most will have to buy new equipment to handle a compliance issue that will start to be enforced in two years.
Said Williams: None of the existing voting systems can handle the post-election audits required by state law beginning in 2017.
Photo credit: Photo credit: Theresa Thompson, Creative Commons, Flickr.
Clarification: story was clarified on Jan. 4, 2016 to provide full names of Secretary of State’s advisory committees.
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