Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

TOP STORY >> Counties still struggle with voting machines

Staff and wire reports

Most counties in Arkansas will be using paper ballots when early voting begins next week because of problems with the recently purchased electronic voting machines, Secretary of State Charlie Daniels said Tuesday, but locally, Pulaski County and Lonoke County officials still hope to use their new touch-screen Ivotronics.

Electronic balloting will be available for early voting in the eight counties that comprise the 2nd Congressional District in central Arkansas because there is a competitive federal party primary on the ballot, Daniels said. The federal Help America Vote Act requires the machines be available in contested federal races this year.

The eight counties in the 2nd Congressional District where electronic machines will be available for early voting are Conway, Faulkner, Perry, Pulaski, Saline, Van Buren, White and Yell.

Daniels said he was confident that electronic voting machines would be available in all 75 counties by the May 23 primary.
The secretary of state spoke at a news conference Tuesday to address questions being raised about whether Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb., would be able to provide electronic voting machines, ballot software and absentee ballots in time for early voting that begins Monday.

While at least 14 counties missed a Friday deadline to deliver absentee ballots to their clerks’ offices for mailing, Pulaski County made its deadline, according to Election Director Susan Inman. Lonoke County is still waiting for its ballots.
Several other counties, including Pulaski, have reported receiving defective software for their new machines.

“We got some stuff yesterday and it didn’t work,” said Inman. A computer file intended to test the optical scanner’s reading of absentee paper ballots is “programmed incorrectly. Imagine that.”

Inman said she was “fearful we can’t meet testing deadlines.”

She said Pulaski County had enough electronic machines for early voting—if they can get them programmed.
“We have paper ballots for early voting if necessary,” Inman said.

In Lonoke County, the envelopes are addressed and waiting for absentee ballots that were supposed to be delivered Tuesday afternoon, according to County Clerk Prudie Perceful.

“They should have been delivered by Friday, she said. The new optical scanner is here,” said Perceful. “ES & S unboxed it today, checked it out and said it was fine.”

She said the county had received enough Ivotronic voting machines—“I think 38 machines—and the ES&S technicians had checked them. “But, I don’t know if they will be programmed in time (for the start of early voting Monday.”

The Nebraska company was awarded $15 million contract in November to deliver electronic voting machines for state compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act. The federal legislation was passed after the 2000 recount that determined George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore in the presidential race.

Under the law, at least one new electronic voting machine was required at each of the polls by the May 23 primary elections in Arkansas.

Mark Kelley, a regional account manager for ES&S, attended the press conference and admitted that his company has been stretched thin with trying to get equipment to Arkansas and 47 other states in time to meet the federal law.

Kelley said the company has had just two full-time employees working in Arkansas, but more are expected this week because primaries in Ohio and Indiana were held earlier this week.

“With the nationwide implementation of the Help America Vote Act, this has been a challenging year,” Kelley said. “The unprecedented level of change has presented challenges all across the country for election officials, voters and election vendors.”

Daniels said any additional election costs accrued by counties because of using the paper ballots would be reimbursed by the state. He said ES&S would probably be asked to help cover the extra costs, but that any discussion about additional costs would have to wait until after this year.

The Financial Times of London reported Friday that with voters in some jurisdictions headed to the polls in the first primaries Tuesday, confusion and concern reign throughout the country with the federally mandated switch to electronic voting—at least for the handicapped—kicking in.

The Times said that “With about 8,000 separate election authorities managing approximately 175,000 polling places and perhaps as many as 150,000 different ballot forms, American elections are complex even when all goes well. But this cycle sees many states and smaller jurisdictions making last-minute efforts to switch to electronic voting, and early signs of trouble are appearing.”

In April, Oregon filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Election Systems & Software, alleging that “The company reneged on a commitment to supply the state with electronic voting machines suitable for handicapped people for its May 16 primary.”

That’s the vendor supplying the voting machines to most of Arkansas.

Tim Humphries, attorney for the secretary of state’s office, said he did not think the state would be in violation of the new federal law because there will be electronic machines available during the early voting period in the 2nd District, the location of the state’s only contested federal primary.

Janet Harris, deputy secretary of state, said the counties that do not have their absentee ballots by today have been instructed to send federal write-in absentee ballots with a list of the candidates and issues oversees to military personnel.
The Arkansas News Bureau contributed to this report.