County Gun-Shy About Voting Machine Buy After Radio Debacle

After poor contracts with Motorola, Butler County, Ohio, wants to make very sure that millions they spend on new election machines — be they paper-based or electronic — will last for a long time.

by Denise G. Callahan Dayton Daily News / March 12, 2019
(TNS) — With the $19 million Motorola emergency radio replacement debacle fresh on their minds, the Butler County, Ohio, commissioners want more information and vendor guarantees before agreeing to buy an $8.5 million voting system.

Board of Elections members met with the commissioners Monday, saying they are recommending the county purchase the $8.5 million direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines rather than the cheaper $6.3 million paper ballot system. Taxpayers would foot the bill for $5.2 and $3 million respectively since the state is paying the rest.

“We’re talking $8 million. Sometimes it doesn’t come down to how fast you vote or how fast you get the results, as long as they’re right,” Commissioner Don Dixon said. “Is it worth $5 million to be able to have them (voting tallies) in 30 minutes or are you okay with eight hours? People work real hard to pay their taxes and they were not all out there driving Maseratis when I came down the road.”

The county has a couple of financing options, it can spread the cost over years or dip into reserves to foot the bill. The original plan was to have the machines in place by the November election this year so any bugs can be worked out by the presidential vote in 2020.

Board of Elections Deputy Director Eric Corbin said there are pros and cons with both systems. Voters in the county are used to touch screen voting and the paper ballots — where people color in circles beside the candidate or issue name — would bring in higher printing and storage costs and an increased potential for voter error.

“With this system being electronic of course there’s less storage of paper ballots and less printing, so it’s going to save us substantial costs in terms of how many ballots we have print,” he said. “A paper system, you have to print 101 percent so that all voters could turn out. With the DRE, you’re only required to print about 15 percent because, of course, that’s not your main voting method.”

It wasn’t just the high price that concerned the commissioners. They wanted to know if prices include future upgrades — both software and hardware — so they don’t get caught off guard by a vendor rendering its product obsolete after only a few years, as was the case with the recent Motorola radio issue.

More than one year ago, the county faced a $19.2 million bill to replace the obsolete public safety communications system and about 3,000 radios that sheriff’s deputies, police, firefighters and others all carry.

Motorola stopped making the old radios and won’t service them anymore. The county was ultimately able to negotiate a new deal with the communication equipment giant.

Dixon said he doesn’t want to be caught in that situation again.

“I would like to see if there is some mechanism that we can work into our contract that when a new version came out that we would have some guaranteed base of credit to the new machines so we’re not starting back to ground zero,” he said.

Dixon doesn’t want the vendor to say, “‘Oh gee we don’t support that anymore, sorry guys.’”

Elections board member Todd Hall told the commissioners they are faced with making a purchase decision today, with today’s equipment and technology and a 2023 deadline, which is when the state’s offer to help pay for the machines expires. He’s not certain the protection Dixon wants can be done.

“That has not been talked about from any of the vendors,” Hall said. “It hasn’t been offered and if I make the assumption, it’s probably going to be just like Apple, here’s our product today and it’s for sale. It’d be like trying to get Apple — in my opinion — to provide options for the future.”

There is still much work to be done on the issue, like investigating possible pay-up-front discounts, software upgrade opportunities and a deeper dive into all of the economic factors associated with both voting systems.

New County Administrator Judi Boyko will continue working with the elections board to produce a comprehensive report on the top DRE and paper-ballot vendors.

©2019 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.