12/30/05 — Voting machine cost may skyrocket

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Voting machine cost may skyrocket

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on December 30, 2005 1:49 PM

The withdrawal of two voting machine companies from bidding on a state contract leaves counties with no choice regarding the type of machines they will buy.

And Wayne County officials, along with those in 99 other counties, are worried that with no competition, the price of new machines could be prohibitive.

State lawmakers ordered counties to upgrade their voting systems after several thousand votes were lost in a Carteret County race in November 2004.

Starting next year, voting is allowed only with optical scan machines, electronic recording machines or paper ballots. Legislators appropriated $36 million to help pay for the new machines.

Ninety of the state's 100 counties have voting machines that do not meet the new standards.

The new voting machines must meet minimum standards for reliability and security. Earlier this month, state officials announced that only three companies were qualified to sell their machines in the state.

But two of the companies have since withdrawn from the competition, leaving only Election Systems & Software as a choice. Lawmakers have said they expect the counties to have decided on a new voting system by Jan. 20 and that the system should ready to accommodate early one-stop voting in the May 2 primary. Those votes can be cast as early as April 13.

Gary Sims, director of the Wayne County Board of Elections, said the deadlines will be difficult to meet. But he said Wayne officials plan to be on time.

"No matter what is handed to us, we are going to deal with it. No matter how bad it gets, we have to make it work," Sims said. "We don't have to like it, but we have to live with it."

The Wayne Board of Elections has recommended the county buy one new voting machine for each of the county's 30 precincts, one for a one-stop voting site, one to handle transfer votes and two as backups.

The total cost is estimated at about $500,000.

Wayne has $437,066 available from state and federal sources to pay for the new equipment, Sims said. The county would have to pick up the rest of the tab.

The Board of Elections is expected to make a recommendation to county commissioners Jan. 17 on what machines to buy.

If commissioners approve the recommendation, Election Systems & Software would have 30 days to produce the machines so that training can begin.

Many county officials across the state are unhappy with the fact that only one company is involved in providing voting machines.

"We've gotten a lot of response across the state from concerned counties and folks who generally think that having one vendor in the election machine pipeline is a bad thing for everybody," said Paul Meyer, a lawyer for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. The association asked Gov. Mike Easley last week to allow counties to use their current machines at least through the May primary. The association also asked Easley for more money to help pay for new machines.

An Easley spokesman said he is considering ways to help county officials worried about meeting the deadline.