01/18/06 — Machines coming for May election

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Machines coming for May election

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on January 18, 2006 1:48 PM

Wayne County voters will have new voting machines in time for the May election, but the county's board of elections members and commissioners say they are not happy about the limited choices or the uncertainty of what costs might still be coming.

At their meeting Tuesday, the commissioners approved the machines recommended by the Board of Elections. Elections director Gary Sims said the equipment will be ready before the May vote.

However, neither the county commissioners nor the Board of Elections members were satisfied with the options presented -- or having to spend the money to replace the machines.

"I'm not personally excited with the equipment, but I have no choice," Sims said.

State mandates approved by the General Assembly last year decertified the county's previous voting machines. The new law required nearly all of North Carolina's 100 counties to replace their voting machines -- a decision which must be made by Friday.

In addition to replacing the voting equipment, the county will also have to purchase more machines to comply with the Help America Vote Act. The federal guidelines require counties to purchase machines that can assist visually impaired, illiterate and other handicapped voters.

For this purpose, the board recommended the AutoMARK voter assist terminal. The machines are equipped with headphones and a zoom feature for the visually impaired, a sip/puff tube for paraplegics and other accessible features for those who have difficulty marking a ballot.

The machines will be available in every precinct in May along with the M-100 precinct ballot counter, which will replace the county's current tabulators. The M-100 provides the state-mandated paper trail to assist voters and officials with counting ballots.

All voting machines purchased by the state's counties will be distributed by Election Systems & Software, a company based in Omaha, Neb.

And that is part of the problem, election and county officials say.

On Dec. 21, after Diebold Systems dropped its name from consideration for the bid to supply the state's voting machines, ES&S became the only acceptable vendor in the state, Sims said. This is just one of many reasons he said he is uncomfortable with the decision.

"One vendor holds all of the cards," he said. "They won't give us any kind of estimates on future costs. I'm afraid they are going to have hidden costs. We will need to know how much it is going to cost to get full support for the first year, because I think we are going to need that support. We haven't even been sent a final contract, but we have to approve this before Friday."

Although a good portion of the cost of the replacement equipment will be covered by federal grant money, there will be some extra that will need to be financed locally to cover the bill.

That was an expense the county and taxpayers did not need, commissioner Jack Best said.

"We have got perfectly good machines that worked for the county," Best said. "There are machines in the state that haven't worked as well. I'd hate to see the state and federal government waste money if we don't need it."

The bill for the equipment originally was expected to be about $500,000, with local resources responsible for about $100,000.

Sims announced Tuesday that federal grants would cover about $447,000 and that an adjusted configuration would take the final cost of the replacement equipment down to $480,000, leaving the county with about $33,000 to cover.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said the state's rushed decision to force the voting machines replacement did not help counties that were not expecting the extra bill, the limited choice of vendors or the Friday deadline to approve the purchase.

"The word flaw is an understatement," Smith said. "The state of North Carolina needs to understand it is a severe understatement."

Now, with the commissioners' approval, the Board of Elections will hold a public session on Thursday at 8 a.m. to finalize the grant request for federal funds. The meeting will be held in the group's board room, located at 209 S. William St.