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Three Arkansas counties to replace voting gear

11 lack new-equipment deals as primary election looms by Michael R. Wickline | December 9, 2019 at 6:52 a.m.
A roll of stickers awaiting distribution to early voters sits on a table at the check-in station at the Pulaski County Courthouse Annex in Little Rock.

Three more counties joined a growing list of those that are scheduled to have new voting equipment in place for the March 3 primary elections, under contracts that have been signed recently.

Just 11 of Arkansas' 75 counties are left on the list of those lacking contracts to replace equipment bought in 2006.

Secretary of State John Thurston's office has signed contracts in the past month with Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software for Baxter, Drew and St. Francis counties, according to officials in the office.

BAXTER COUNTY

The state will cover $185,427.01 of the bill for the new voting equipment in Baxter County, while Baxter County's share of the bill will be $278,687.68, Kurt Naumann, administrative director in the secretary of state's office, said through Thurston's spokesman, Chris Powell.

Baxter County officials "requested more equipment than they originally estimated and also planned for an additional vote center," Powell said in explaining why the county is spending more money than the state.

But Baxter County Clerk Canda Reese said state funding for the new voting equipment was based on an estimate by former Secretary of State Mark Martin's office that the county needed 50 new voting machines, which she described as an inadequate amount of new voting equipment to serve Baxter County's voters.

The county will get 82 new voting machines and expects to get the equipment shortly before Christmas to use during the primary election, she said.

"We are extremely excited about that because our equipment was utterly falling apart," as Baxter County has relied largely on aging equipment purchased in the mid-2000s with federal money, Reese said.

Baxter County changed from having 22 polling sites to 11 voting centers in the 2018 general election, and it will have 12 voting centers in the 2020 primary election, she said. Baxter County is reopening a polling site in Lakeview as a voting center in the primary election because another voting center in Midway got more traffic than expected in the 2018 general election, she said.

Baxter County has 28,290 registered voters, according to the secretary of state's office.

DREW COUNTY

The state's share of the cost for the new voting equipment in Drew County will be $236,147.18, and Drew County's tab will be $39,814.62, the secretary of state's office said.

Drew County Clerk Lyna Gulledge said the county initially expected to have to spend about $174,000 of its funds for the new equipment to replace machines purchased in 2005.

But the Drew County Election Commission voted to shift to having eight voting centers where all registered voters can cast ballots on the day of the election, rather than at 17 polling sites. That reduced the required voting equipment, "so we were able to save the cost there," she said.

Gulledge said she believes that having the eight voting centers will make it a little easier for voters because it will allow people who live far out in the county to cast their ballots close to where they work.

She said she's hoping the new equipment will allow Drew County election officials to leave as early as 10 p.m. on election rights rather than leaving after midnight.

"I think the machines are a lot easier to use," Gulledge said.

She said Friday afternoon "we just finished unloading" the new voting equipment, which she anticipates will be used in the 2020 primary election.

Drew County has 10,981 registered voters, according to the secretary of state's office.

ST. FRANCIS COUNTY

The state's part of the bill for the new voting equipment in St. Francis County will be $257,120.34, and St. Francis County's share will be $27,415.35, the secretary of state's office said.

St. Francis County had budgeted about $125,000 for its share of the cost for the new voting equipment, but "we didn't want to spend more money than needed," said St. Francis County Election Commission Chairman Frederick Freeman.

"The county is pleased we were able to lessen our cost exposure. That's $100,000 our county can use for other needs," he said.

St. Francis County has been using voting equipment purchased in the mid-200os with federal money, and "we have borrowed [equipment] from other counties to patch up things over the years," Freeman said.

"We have been limping around for a while," he said. "It's past time for an upgrade."

Freeman said St. Francis County anticipates getting its new voting equipment before Christmas to use in the primary election.

He said the county isn't shifting to voting centers from having 13 polling sites on election days. He said every taxpaying citizen deserves the best experience, and he wants the voting experience to be as close to the voters as possible to reduce transportation barriers and other issues that limit their ability to cast ballots.

St. Francis County has 11,036 registered voters, according to the secretary of state's office.

LOOKING AHEAD

The state funding for new voting machines is available under Act 808 of 2019. That law diverted $8.24 million in excess funds from the property-tax relief trust fund to the county voting systems grant fund. About $2 million of these funds was used to reimburse three counties -- Benton, White and Ashley -- for half of what they previously paid for new equipment. (Act 808 also increased the homestead property tax credit from $350 to $375 per parcel.)

The agreements reached with Baxter, Drew and St. Francis counties increases to 10 the number of counties expecting to have the new equipment for the primary election, under contracts signed in the past few months. Through Nov. 1, Thurston's office had signed contracts with Election Systems & Software for Lincoln, Madison, Mississippi, Phillips, Poinsett, Saline and Van Buren counties.

That could leave 11 counties using old equipment for the March 3 primary election. They are Bradley, Conway, Fulton, Jefferson, Lee, Monroe, Newton, Pulaski, Scott, Searcy and Stone counties.

Among the state's 75 counties, Pulaski County has the most registered voters, with 247,412 of the state's 1.72 million registered voters, according to the secretary of state's office.

County Judge Barry Hyde said he and Pulaski County Election Commission Chairwoman Evelyn Gomez met with two officials in the secretary of state's office several weeks ago and received an estimate that it would cost about $1.8 million for the county to get new equipment and poll books.

The state would cover about $1.5 million of the cost and the county would chip in between $200,000 and $300,000 based on this estimate, which wouldn't consolidate the county's polling sites into voting centers, he said.

Hyde said he thought Naumann was supposed to double-check the cost and voting equipment estimates but that "I have not heard anything from them since."

But Naumann said he was waiting to hear back from county officials about their voting equipment needs because they are the only ones who can determine that.

Naumann said he was optimistic that an agreement can be reached with Pulaski County in time for the 2020 general election.

Fifty-four of Arkansas' 75 counties had updated equipment by the November 2018 general election.

About $9.7 million from the secretary of state's budget, $4.4 million in one-time federal funds and $8.7 million from the counties paid for this equipment under deals brokered by Martin's office, officials for Martin said last year.

The old machines were bought with federal funds under then-Secretary of State Charlie Daniels in 2006.

Thurston's office had estimated that the new machines for 21 counties would cost the state and counties a total of $15 million, before he announced Aug. 22 that he had negotiated a 15% discount with Election Systems & Software. Daniels and Martin also bought machines from the company.

NW News on 12/09/2019

Print Headline: Three Arkansas counties to replace voting gear

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