Bill offers Ohio counties 80 percent state funding for new voting machines
As county election boards in Ohio scrounge for parts and cross their fingers that aging equipment will hold on for a few more elections, state legislators have started talking about how to help pay for new voting machines.
A bill that would have the state pay 80 percent of the cost of new machines got a first hearing Tuesday. Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley, said most machines in Ohio are 12 years old and nearing the end of their life spans, but counties will need help buying new equipment.
“A lot of creativity has been employed by our board of elections personnel throughout the state,” LaRose said. “They’ll show you a lot of duct-tape work going on in the back room.”
The proposed split, he said, is similar to the 85 percent the state paid for electronic poll books that are now being used by 82 of the 88 counties. He urged his colleagues to approve the funding for 2018, or at least for 2019.
“It’s a good point to start the discussion,” said Sen. Bill Coley, R-West Chester. “We’re waiting to see how much it’s going to cost. We can’t have a situation with disparate treatment. You can’t have rich counties with machines that work and poor counties going back to paper.
Most of Ohio’s voting equipment dates to 2005 or 2006, when the federal Help America Vote Act provided the state with about $115 million for new equipment. The 2002 law grew out of Florida’s hanging-chad debacle in the 2000 presidential vote count.
Officials say the touch-screens and optical scanners have generally worked well, but as they age, the risk of serious errors resulting from outdated equipment rises.
LaRose said that as his campaign to be Ohio’s next secretary of state takes him to numerous elections boards, he has seen a number of voting-machine graveyards, where employees cannibalize parts to keep other machines running.
Associations representing county commissioners and county elections officials both say the 80-20 split is fair.
“The counties are going to bear all the long-term costs of maintaining that equipment, so we’ve been asking for a larger piece of it up front,” said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.
The bill calls for $89 million to be spent on elections machines, including $7 million to reimburse the roughly dozen counties that have already done full or partial replacements. But considering that the Association of Election Officials estimates that the cost statewide could top $200 million, the bill’s sum could be short by more than $70 million.
An exact total cost is tough to determine at this point, Ockerman said. County officials are more concerned now about the state’s match; the dollar figure could be worked out next year in the capital budget.
The Franklin County Board of Elections estimates that new machines will cost between $11 million and $30 million. The board hopes to select a vendor by the second quarter of next year, said spokesman Aaron Sellers.
“We have been busy looking at all the voting-machine vendors out there that have certified equipment,” he said. “We are trying to see what options might work best for us.”
The estimated cost in surrounding counties ranges from $1.3 million in Pickaway to $4.5 million in Delaware.
Article written by Jim Siegel for The Columbus Dispatch on September 26th, 2017.
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