Butler County continues debate over new voting machines that will cost millions

Butler County will spend millions of dollars of its own funds to replace aging voting machines, and of board of elections is asking for more information before the process moves forward.

The replacement is part of a statewide effort to update counties’ voting machines. Butler County is set to receive $3.2 million of the state’s $104.5 million allocation to county boards of elections, and it will have to contribute between $2.25 million and $5.7 million above the state funds.

There are nearly 255,000 registered Butler County voters, and more than half of them cast a ballot in 2018 elections.

The plan is to use the new machines beginning with the November 2019 general election. If boards of elections cannot get the machines up and running for the 2019 general election, it’s mandated they use their current machines for the 2020 presidential primary and general election and begin using new machines in 2021.

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Butler County has about 1,600 touch-screen voting machines, which record a voter’s ballot to a unique card inserted into the machine. They were purchased in 2005. Between 1,200 and 1,300 are sent to about 90 polling locations for elections. Several dozen are unusable, and dozens more need to be repaired after each election, according to the county elections office.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted often touts that “every vote counts,” and cites that around 200 races and issues in the past five years were decided by a single vote or were tied.

“Taking action now allows the voting machines to be put in place next year so poll workers can be trained and the equipment can be tested well ahead of the 2020 presidential election,” Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.

Butler County election staff presented its recommendation to the Butler County Board of Elections, and the presentation ranked two of the five vendors. Also, the presentation only included bid amounts from two of the five vendors. The staff recommended Dominion over ES&S, however, board members wanted to see the bid amounts and the staff rankings of the other three vendors.

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Elections Director Diane Noonan said there was a consensus taken to determine staff rankings, which elections board member Todd Hall questioned. He wanted to see a true average among those reviewing the vendors’ quotes.

Noonan defended the process, saying, “Sometimes when sitting with a group and listening to why they scored something different than you did, you have a better understanding of where they’re coming from.”

Hall said he wouldn’t have done that because “it dilutes the purpose of having six people look at it.”

Butler County elections Deputy Director Eric Corbin said the staff will make the changes, corrections and additions to the presentation but said members of the board staff have met with the vendors “and we feel we know their strengths and weaknesses.”

Staff will make another presentation to include the issues board members had with the existing one — including more details about the quotes, and asking for any bulk bids to be broken down — before they will meet with the Butler County Commission, which will have to find the money to pay for the machines.

“I want to break it down as hard as I can because we’re asking to stomach a lot of money,” said Hall. “I want to see apple to apple, pound for pound.”

Butler County elections officials estimated they would need to spend between $3 million and $6 million to replace their 1,600 electronic voting machines. The two quotes to provide similar voting equipment were $5.1 million (Dominion) and $5.7 million (ES&S). The companies also provided paper ballot options — in which ballots would be filled out by voters and scanned into a machine. Dominion’s cost was $2.7 million, and ES&S cost was $2.25 million for those machines, but Corbin said going back to a paper ballot system will add extra costs, such as adding upwards of a third more polling locations.

There are 282 voting precincts at nearly 90 polling locations on Election Day.

Butler County Commissioner Don Dixon said the board won’t just accept the election board’s recommendation and will do a dual financial investigation. The county has estimated it will cost $1 million to $3 million to replace the county’s voting machines.

When Tawana Keels, Butler County Commission’s finance director, was told of the proposed among from the board of elections, she said, “We don’t have $6 million sitting somewhere.”

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