Counties seek polling tech upgrades

FAYETTEVILLE -- Election officials in Benton and Washington counties are considering upgrading the electronic poll books used to check in voters during elections, with a cost of about $250,000 per county.

The Washington County Election Commission on Wednesday authorized Jennifer Price, election director, to prepare a request for funding from the Quorum Court.

Price said the county has 166 electronic poll books that have been used since 2016. In the 2020 election, problems with the poll books included failure to maintain a charge, inability to stay connected to Wi-Fi and voter signature pages freezing.

Price said the new poll books should solve those problems and will offer new features.

"There are several updates that will be beneficial to the voters and election officials," Price said. "The poll books we have were received by the county in 2016 so they're reaching the end of their useful life."

Price said the new poll books have screens that are easier to use for both voters and poll workers, and will directly scan driver's licenses and other state IDs. The computers can issue provisional ballots that will not be scanned by the county's vote counting machines until approved by the Election Commission and can generate reports the older poll books can't.

Justice of the Peace Patrick Deakins is chairman of Washington County's Finance Committee. Deakins said he's familiar with the request in general, but will need more details. Deakins said he wants the county to explore all possible options for funding before deciding on the purchase.

"I have been told they would like to present this at the May meeting," Deakins said. "To me, that may be a little bit aggressive. I want to be sure we look around and see what our resources are, if there is any grant money around. There's also the American Rescue Plan money coming and we don't know yet what restrictions may or may not be placed on those funds. Is there $250,000 just laying around? No."

Kim Dennison, Benton County's election coordinator, said she needs about $252,000 to replace 175 electronic poll books. Dennison said she gave a proposal to Brenda Peacock, the county's comptroller, to present to a Quorum Court committee that is exploring uses for $3.8 million in federal coronavirus relief money. Peacock said the request could go to the Finance Committee in May.

Price and Dennison said another election equipment upgrade may wait until next year. A software upgrade is available for the ExpressVote voting machines that would cost about $125 per machine. Price said Washington County has 326 machines, so the upgrade would cost about $41,000. Dennison said it would cost about $55,000 for Benton County's 475 machines.

Price said the proposed software upgrade will have to be approved by the state Board of Election Commissioners before the counties could consider it.

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