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State lawmakers urged to cut county vote-machine cost

by Dale Ellis | February 27, 2020 at 6:37 a.m.
Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stu Soffer is shown in this January 2019 file photo.

PINE BLUFF — Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stuart “Stu” Soffer is calling on elected officials in Jefferson County to put pressure on the state to pay for new voting machines for the county.

He said the cash-strapped county cannot come up with the more than $300,000 the Arkansas secretary of state’s office says the county will have to pay to acquire 140 of the new ExpressVote voting machines from Election Systems & Software, the state’s approved vendor of election systems.

The total cost of the 140 machines, according to an estimate supplied by the Jefferson County Election Commission, is nearly $940,000. To purchase the machines, the state would put in $618,434 from federal grant funds, leaving Jefferson County to come up with the remaining $321,367, money that Soffer said the county does not have.

In an email sent Tuesday morning to state Reps. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, Ken Ferguson, D-Pine Bluff, Mike Holcomb, R-Pine Bluff, Roger Lynch, R-Lonoke, and Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, and to Sens. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, and Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, Soffer told the legislators that he would be asking their assistance in obtaining a third-party review of the state’s formula that determines funding.

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He also mentioned the possibility of persuading either the state or Election Systems & Software to reduce the cost to the county.

Besides Jefferson County, there are 10 other counties with outdated equipment: Bradley, Conway, Fulton, Lee, Monroe, Newton, Pulaski, Scott, Searcy and Stone. Scott County has signed contracts for new equipment, the secretary of state’s office said Monday.

“Arkansas has reported a surplus for several quarters and while there are lots of priorities and needs throughout the state, I believe all will agree permitting citizens to vote and provide results without delays should be among them,” Soffer said in the email.

“Another option is for Secretary of State to prevail on Election Systems & Software to reduce equipment costs for the remaining 11 counties. They have prospered in Arkansas for many years and will continue to prosper from residual sales of equipment and supplies.”

In the email, Soffer described the equipment needs outlined by the Election Commission as “bare bones.”

He said in the email that the assistance of the elected officials is being “solicited in obtaining needed funding in sufficient time to obtain and train election workers for the November election.”

Jefferson County has struggled financially at times. For the past two decades, the county has experienced a declining population, loss of businesses and a falling tax base.

A new casino is under construction in Pine Bluff. Out of casino tax receipts, according to Amendment 100, 55% is to be disbursed to the state general fund, 17.5% to the Arkansas Racing Commission, 19.5% to the city, and 8% to the county.

The casino is scheduled to open in late May or early June and the earliest tax receipts the county can expect would come in the fourth quarter of the year, officials have said. The general election is Nov. 3.

County Judge Gerald Robinson said that Jefferson County is currently unable to come up with the needed funds to complete the purchase.

“I don’t see it at this particular time,” he said. “I just don’t see it.”

Robinson said he is exploring other possibilities, but that any potential alternatives are purely speculative at this point.

“If we come up with half, maybe, and break it down to where we don’t have to pay all of it at one time — but I’m just not sure as to whether we’ll have it,” he said. “We’ll just have to wait and see how the revenues come in.”

Robinson said he plans to talk with representatives Ferguson and Vivian Flowers to see if the state can provide additional assistance. But he said that, at the moment, the most likely scenario is that Jefferson County will have to either come up with the funds or do without the new machines for the foreseeable future.

When contacted by phone, Ferguson said he had not seen Soffer’s email and was not aware there was a problem.

“I thought the county had bought new machines,” Ferguson said. “I thought we had gotten some money from the secretary of state’s office.”

Ferguson said that he would try to contact Soffer and get more information to see what help he might be able to provide.

Vivian Flowers said that at this point there was nothing for her to do in the matter until a formal request is made. She said her take on Soffer’s email was that it was intended to provide information on the issue but did not specifically request any particular action.

“I’m not trying to not do anything, but we’re not in legislative session. As a legislator, of course I’m going to do any kind of letter of support, or if there’s a meeting. But it was still informational in terms of even wanting the support,” Flowers said. “Of course, anytime there is an effort to get resources for anywhere in my district I’m going to support it. But without knowing what he’s going to do, who he’s going to ask, what the pot of funds are, if there would be a better alternative, I don’t know.”

Vivian Flowers said the funding mechanism put together by the secretary of state’s office has led to some confusion, with some counties receiving no assistance and others having no out-of-pocket expense.

“As far as the funding, I think that’s all sort of mixed up and messed up,” she said. “There are counties that the state paid entirely for, or paid a larger share, and I don’t really know what the formula is.”

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, when contacted by phone, asked that any questions be submitted to her in an email, which she had not replied to by Wednesday night.

Soffer said that when the Election Commission convenes again, a formal request will be drafted and forwarded to elected officials.

With early voting well into its second week, officials in the Jefferson County Clerk’s office said that by 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 2,487 of the county’s 43,408 registered voters had cast their ballots.

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