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Deadline too tight, election officials stress

New voting machine installs by March primary a worry by Michael R. Wickline | June 1, 2015 at 2:55 a.m.

The Pulaski County Election Commission is questioning whether Secretary of State Mark Martin should delay his plans to replace the state's voting machines by the March 1 primary election and instead wait until 2017 to overhaul the voting machines in the state's 75 counties.

Martin's office has received three bids from voting machine equipment companies in response to his request for proposals. It's evaluating the bids from Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software; California-based Unisyn Voting Solutions; and Austin, Texas-based Hart InterCivic, a Martin spokesman said.

The secretary of state's office is considering replacing voting equipment statewide "with a sole-source integrated voting system allowing for automation and full integration between polling place equipment and voter registration system(s)," according to a copy of the request-for-proposal released by Martin's office.

These pieces of equipment would allow voters to mark their ballots on electronic screens or to cast paper ballots.

If the project succeeds, the vendor would be responsible for all replacement, installation, training, testing and maintenance no later than March 1, the request-for-proposal states. The maximum expenditure for the project would be $30 million, the secretary of state said.

Arkansas will participate in a March 1 regional presidential primary with several Southern states in what its supporters are calling the SEC primary. (The SEC is the Southeastern Conference, an athletic conference of universities in most of the Southern states).

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican signed legislation Friday to move Arkansas' primary election for president and other offices from May 24 to March 1 for 2016.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, and former Arkansas and U.S. first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, are making their second attempts at winning their parties' presidential nominations in 2016. They both lost in 2008.

Bryan Poe, director of elections for the Pulaski County Election Commission, told Rob Hammons, elections division director for the secretary of state's office, in a letter dated May 14 that "we believe that the current timeline for the replacement of voting machines might be a bit aggressive."

The replacement of the voting machines is going to have a major impact on how elections are conducted in Arkansas, and "how we as a county election commission are able to perform our duties," Poe wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Implementing such a major change "so close to a big election year like 2016 could lead to confusion amongst voters and election officials, and unavoidable and unwanted disruptions in the voting process," Poe wrote.

He said the letter reflects the Pulaski County Election Commission's and its staff's opinions.

"We feel that implementing such a change in 2017, during off year elections, would be a more prudent course of action that would minimize these disruptions and have the added benefit of providing both you and us with more time to plan the transition, identify issues and solicit and evaluate additional voting system vendors," Poe said.

"That said, we would like reassurances from you that this process can be implemented smoothly, that there will be enough time to deploy the equipment, train the commissions and their staff on the use of the equipment and accompanying software, to train pollworkers on the new equipment, and to educate voters on any changes in procedures that may be made necessary by the adoption of new equipment," Poe said.

Poe said Friday in an interview that he had intended to testify this week before lawmakers about his concerns about replacing the voting equipment before the March 1 primary election.

But, he said, he decided it was pointless to testify, after the Republican-dominated Senate on Wednesday took the rare step of extracting the SEC primary bill out of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee after the bill failed to clear the eight-member committee.

The committee included four Republicans, who backed the bill, and four Democrats, who opposed it.

"There was really nothing we could say that would make them change their mind," Poe said.

The Senate later amended the bill so that it expires after the 2016 election.

Martin spokesman Chris Powell declined Friday to respond to Poe's proposal.

"We appreciate input from all of our county officials as we go through this process," Powell said.

He said the secretary of state's office doesn't have "a target date" at this point for deciding what company it will purchase voting equipment through.

"The secretary of state's office is evaluating a number of financing options," Powell said.

"At this time, our office has received no funding for a statewide integrated voting system. We continue to work to find a viable funding [stream] and are not interested in a lease-purchase option," he said.

Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, said Friday that no one voiced any concerns about the equipment when the committee was voting on whether to shift the primary date.

Jennifer Price, elections coordinator for the Washington County Election Commission, said Friday that she doesn't know whether the state should delay replacing its voting equipment until 2017.

"We would love to see new voting equipment if possible" in 2016 because the voting equipment will be 9 years old, Price said. She wondered what would happen if the existing voting equipment isn't replaced and counties have problems with the old equipment during the 2016 primary elections.

"It is a difficult scenario no matter what you do," Price said.

The Arkansas County Election Commissions Association recommends that delivery, training and implementation of the new voting equipment be scheduled after the March 1 primary election and any runoff election, said association President Stuart Soffer, who is a Jefferson County election commissioner and Republican member of the state Board of Election Commissioners.

"The exception should be those counties, such as Washington County, who want to be the pioneers in implementing the new equipment. That way the vendor can devote substantial resources to a few counties for the March election, and after the kinks are ironed out, turn their efforts to the remaining counties," said Soffer.

"Early voting begins on Feb. 15, so why jump through hoops and rush the process if you don't have to?"

Metro on 06/01/2015

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