Highland County Board of Elections administrator Steve Witham says his board is faced with two major decisions by year’s end: which voting machine system to which his office should upgrade, and how to upgrade electronic poll books.
According to Witham, three types of voting machines are being considered for Highland County’s upgrade. Witham said the first one is a newer version of the touch-screen system currently in use, the second is the same one that voters have been using for the last 13 years, and the third requires the least amount of transition.
The second choice, he said, is called a “hybrid” system, which he said uses the familiar touch screen but also prints out a paper ballot that the voter physically takes to an optical scanner at the polling place.
Rounding out the three is a straight paper-based system where the voter fills in circles on the ballot, and when finished, takes the paper ballot to an optical scanner.
“All of them have their pros and cons,” he told county commissioners last week. “The touch screen would be the least transition that we have since that’s where we’re at. It would be just a matter of getting used to newer equipment, updating some training with our poll workers and most importantly, our voters are already used to it.”
When considering the types of voting equipment, he said the election board is looking at accuracy, efficiency, storage requirements, user-friendliness for both voter and poll worker, and affordability.
To assist with affordability, the State of Ohio will contribute $572,000 for the Highland County upgrade for whatever system the election board chooses, officials have said.
The touch screen system is the most expensive, according to Witham, coming in at a little over $827,000 from Dominion Voting Systems of Denver.
He told commissioners that his office believed that particular system was “out of reach” due to cost, but because the board of elections had recently purchased a high speed scanner from the company, Dominion proposed an equipment buy-back offer.
“They came back to us with a trade-in allowance offer of $202,000,” he said. “That would bring the outright purchase price down to $624,504.”
Subtracting the state funding total would bring the amount that the county would owe for an outright purchase to $52,504.
He said that in terms of ongoing costs, the county pays $17,000 annually for the current system with ongoing licensing costs moving up to over $46,000.
“We’re going to be looking at $30,000 added on to our yearly cost if we go with the touch-screen system,” he said.
Paper ballots, he said, present challenges based on previous experience with what the board of elections receives through the mail.
Even with detailed picture information as to how to properly vote the paper ballot, he said, “we get them back with check marks, and when we ask them to use blue or black ink, we get them with pink ink and purple ink and green ink, and that causes headaches when we run them through the scanner.”
Clear Ballot of Boston, he said, has come in with an up-front price of almost $484,000, well below the state funding allotment.
“If we did go with Clear Ballot, we would have the flexibility to upgrade our high speed scanner and ballot on-demand printer,” he said.
Witham added that Clear Ballot has made the up-front offer of five years free maintenance, licensing and support, which would mean that if the board of elections decided to purchase the Clear Ballot system, the on-going annual $26,550 expense would be waived until 2024.
Offering a combination of touch screen and paper ballots, in his words “the best of both worlds,” is the hybrid system from Unisyn Voting Solutions/RBM Consulting of Vista, Calif.
The Unisyn/RBM hybrid voting system has an upfront cost of $530,000, $42,000 below the state funding allowance, and as an incentive, he said that the company is now also offering to delay the $26,000 in annual licensing fees until 2024.
The second decision facing his board is the purchase of 50 electronic poll books to go with whatever new voting system is approved.
The newer poll books increase the efficiency of processing the voter and they connect wirelessly, but unlike the trio of voting machine proposals, he said the digital poll books can’t be paid out of state funding for voting equipment.
Election Systems and Software LLC of Omaha, Neb. offered a proposal of nearly $77,000 with data conversion fees totalling almost $1,800, according to Witham.
KNOWink of St. Louis, Mo. tendered an offer of $61,750 for its poll book hardware and software, in addition to annual software licensing and maintenance fees of $6,250, Witham said.
The last proposal came from Tampa, Fla.-based TENEX Software Solutions, which offered its hardware and software for a quote of $76,900 plus annual software licensing after the first year of $6,250, according to Witham.
“Of course, all of these figures are subject to change since when we decide on what vendor to use, they will be negotiable,” Witham told commissioners.
The board of elections had a meeting scheduled for 8 a.m. Wednesday with hopes of deciding on systems, and even though the State of Ohio has given all 88 counties until next year’s Nov. 5 general election to complete their upgrades, Witham said he’d like to have everything in place prior to the May 7, 2019 primary election.
All three equipment manufacturers have assured Witham that once a decision is made, equipment can be delivered for initial setup by month’s end.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.