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FAYETTEVILLE -- The race is on to replace Washington County's decade-old voting equipment before the 2016 presidential election, the county's election coordinator said Thursday.

Two vendors will meet with election commissioners as part of the companies' statewide push to grab Arkansas' next voting equipment contracts, said coordinator Jennifer Price during the commission's first meeting of the new term.

At A glance

Washington County Election Commission

The three commissioners are appointed by the county political parties, and Republicans get two of the three spots for the next two years because their party won a majority of the state’s constitutional offices.

• Renee Oelschlaeger, Republican and chairwoman

• Bill Ackerman, Republican and new member

• Max Deitchler, Democrat

Source: Staff Report

California-based Unisyn Voting Solutions and Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software are both angling for the state's attention, Price said. Election Systems & Software provides the state's current equipment and support. New contracts could net either company tens of millions of state taxpayers' dollars, Price said.

"It's the money that'll be the holdup," Price told the three commissioners, who oversee all city and county votes. "The state appropriating the money is the biggest hurdle."

State assistance covering the cost isn't guaranteed but would be vital, Price said later in an interview. Replacing Washington County's equipment alone could cost between $500,000 and $1 million.

"It's just something that we all know needs to happen," she said of state help. "It's desperately needed -- 2016 will be such a heavy election year that we really do need it, and 2015 is the shelf-life of the equipment that we have right now."

The county's ballot-making programs and ballot-counting machines were last replaced a decade ago, arriving just a month before the 2006 primary, Price said. She and the commission have said for months the equipment is outdated, with its Windows XP operating system and two separate programs for paper and electronic ballots. The two programs don't mesh, which the commission has blamed for slow ballot counts in past elections.

If new equipment comes, the earliest arrival likely would be late this year, Price said.

The commission plans to meet with both companies next month. Commissioners said Thursday they are eager to ask the companies questions and take a look at the price tags. Most machines cost a few thousand dollars, but Election Systems & Software offers one machine that costs about $100,000, Price said.

"Does it do your laundry?" joked Renee Oelschlaeger, a Republican commissioner who was voted commission chairwoman by the other two members Thursday.

The two companies provide largely similar systems, Price said. Both are streamlining the split between paper and electronic ballots and are trying to speed up results with better machines and counting at the polling places instead of at the county courthouse at the end of Election Day.

Unisyn insists clients buy everything -- computers, papers and machines -- through them, Price said.

"That to me is a little troublesome," she said.

The commission will also be keeping an eye on a drive that began in Alabama to bump the South's 2016 presidential primaries to March. Alabama's secretary of state calls it the "SEC Primary," for the Southeastern Conference in college athletics. Several states in the region, including Arkansas, have shown interest in making the move, according to The Associated Press.

An earlier primary might be tempting if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also the former first lady of Arkansas, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee run for president as is widely rumored, Price said. On the other hand, splitting presidential contests from other primaries has hurt turnout for nonpresidential primary votes in the past, she said.

"Keep it on the radar," Oelschlaeger said, "because this is something that has to come from the state."

Dan Holtmeyer can be reached at dholtmeyer@nwadg.com and on Twitter @NWADanH.

NW News on 01/23/2015

Print Headline: County eyes new voting machines

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