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Official doubtful on state election aid

Jefferson County lacks matching funds, commissioner says by Dale Ellis | August 4, 2019 at 9:22 a.m.

The announcement of money from the state for counties to purchase new voting equipment has left a Jefferson County election commissioner less than enthusiastic.

Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stu Soffer says the county has no money to meet the matching requirement.

"We do not see a light at the end of the tunnel on new voting equipment," Soffer said.

On Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that $8.24 million had been provided to the secretary of state's office to allow counties to improve voting equipment, programming and maintenance.

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A day earlier, during a meeting at the Arkansas Association of Counties, Kurt Naumann, director of administration and legislative affairs in the secretary of state's office, told several dozen county officials that the office expected to receive these funds in mid-August from the state Department of Finance and Administration.

Jefferson County officials say the county needs nearly $1 million to purchase new voting machines, and to qualify for state funding, the county would have to come up with almost 35% of the total, which Soffer said the county doesn't have.

"Essentially," Soffer said, "that meeting was just a dog and pony show and there was no new information that I gleaned from it because I had been on top of it.

"As it stands now, Jefferson County is not going to get any new voting equipment anytime soon."

Currently, Jefferson County uses iVotronics touch-screen voting machines that were purchased from Election Systems and Software in 2006, with some donated from other counties as those systems were upgraded. Soffer said the machines are old and tend to break down at an unacceptable rate.

Chris Powell, spokesman for Secretary of State John Thurston, whose office oversees elections statewide, agreed that the machines are obsolete.

"The programming software those systems are run on is outdated," Powell said. "It's an old version of Windows the software runs on. And those machines are old, prone to break down, and parts are harder and harder to come by."

The new machines being looked at, Powell said, come with software that can be easily upgraded, have more up-to-date encryption, can handle more data, and are easier to use both from the election workers' standpoint and the voters'.

At Wednesday's meeting, county officials were told the secretary of state's office calculated each county's estimated cost based on a formula factoring in poverty rates, per capita income, unemployment rates and population change. The formula is based on variables used by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Under that formula, the state would spend $618,434 and Jefferson County $321,367 to buy 140 new machines, according to estimates provided by Naumann.

"I told him that's all well and good but in the case of my county, there is no money in the general fund," he said. "They could not meet jail payroll last month without an appropriation, so your figures are all well and good but they're not realistic and they do not apply to my county. My county cannot have any matching funds. We just don't have it."

Soffer said he has been trying to meet with Gerald Robinson, county judge of Jefferson County, about the need for new voting machines but said the county judge's office has not been responsive.

Soffer said he did receive an email early last week from Pamela Jenkins, chief of staff for Robinson, saying the county judge and three others from his office would attend the meeting.

"They didn't make it. I don't know why. I can only presume he had a more pressing obligation," Soffer said. "I think it would have been more effective if the county judge had stood up and said, 'I don't have the money,' but there again, he sets his own agenda. Obviously, he had something more pressing. I'm not going to question the county judge."

Robinson said he had planned to attend the meeting but said issues arose in the county that forced him to change his plans.

"We had some issues that needed to be tended to here in the county and I didn't have time to get there. If I could have been there, I would have been there," he said. "My advice to Stu is don't panic. If you see me panic, then you need to panic. Other than that, don't worry about it."

Robinson said he has been working to create a reserve fund that the county can tap for necessary expenditures that are not in the county budget, and he said had made some headway through cost-cutting measures implemented through the Quorum Court, but he said it has been slow-going.

"Although we may not be able to address this at this exact moment, it is a priority on my list to get to," Robinson said. "I know we've got an election coming up next year and we're going to try and create something before then. We'll see what some of these savings we've done, what they will be."

He said he has been working closely with County Treasurer Vonysha Goodwin to trim the budget of all unnecessary costs, but he said it will likely be close to the end of the year before he can assess whether enough progress has been made to come up with the needed county matching funds to purchase new voting machines.

The presidential primary in Arkansas is scheduled to be held on March 3.

Robinson said he has been in contact with Thurston, the secretary of state, to inquire if there may be other, less expensive options that Jefferson County can pursue as it seeks to replace its aged equipment.

"We just want to have the options," Robinson said. "It's not doom and gloom. We don't have the money at this particular time, but it's not over. It will be a priority for us to see what we have to do to come up with this money."

State Desk on 08/04/2019


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