Butler County doing deep dive on new voting machines

A couple hundred people came to the Butler County Board of Elections office on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, to test out six voting machines from five vendors. The elections office is looking to replace its machines from 2005, but the price tag could be cost taxpayers between $3 million and $6 million. MICHAEL D. PITMAN/STAFF

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A couple hundred people came to the Butler County Board of Elections office on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, to test out six voting machines from five vendors. The elections office is looking to replace its machines from 2005, but the price tag could be cost taxpayers between $3 million and $6 million. MICHAEL D. PITMAN/STAFF

The Butler County commissioners are conducting an independent analysis into which voting machine vendor and pricing best suit the county, while the Board of Elections does its due diligence.

The state has allocated $3.2 million for Butler but anything above that amount is on the county’s dime. There are five state-approved vendors — Clear Ballot Group, Dominion Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Hart InterCivic, and Unisyn Voting Solutions — the county must choose from, and hundreds of options to parse. The prices are valid through 2023.

The county has estimated it will cost $1 million to $3 million worth of local taxpayer money to replace the system and about 1,688 voting machines. Commissioner Don Dixon said they will not just accept a recommendation from the elections board — like they did recently when poll books were purchased — because there is too much at stake. He also said the election board doesn’t have the financial expertise the commissioners’ staff does, and that is crucial.

RELATED: Maintenance of Butler County voting machines raises concerns

There are two aspects of this acquisition, he said. There is the financial side and then what equipment will work best for the county. He said their staff will be meeting with vendors, picking apart the bid documents and developing their own analysis of the best, most cost effective system — then they will compare notes with the county Board of Elections.

“The Board of Elections does a great job running elections and we believe everything they tell us, but they don’t have the financial side,” Dixon told the Journal-News. “They don’t have the five-, 10-, 15-year projection of revenues and expenditures and what we’re looking at. You might want the Cadillac, but if the Chevrolet does the same thing and you can afford the Chevrolet, you don’t go into debt over your head to get the Cadillac.”

Elections Director Diane Noonan said she welcomes the commissioners conducting an investigation and analysis into the voting machines as it will be a significant investment.

This won’t be the first time the commissioners have had a say in Board of Elections business — other than approving the bills. A little over a year ago the commissioners intervened with the elections board when they learned the maintenance agreement on the aging voting equipment lapsed. The commissioners surmised the elections office did not pay the $85,000 bill because they believed new machines would be purchased soon.

After considering the commissioners concerns, the board voted in September 2017 to spend $102,471 to reinstate the maintenance contract and get on-site support from the vendor for elections.

MORE: Butler and Warren counties in line for state voting machine money

The Board of Elections staff said they let the contract with vendor Dominion lapse at the end of 2016 because they could fix their equipment for less than the contract price.

Board of Elections Deputy Director Eric Corbin said he and Noonan have reviewed the state pricing contracts and they “are working with the vendors to get quotes specific” to Butler County’s needs.

“We are working on comparing the prices and support services the vendors have to offer,” Corbin said.

He said the Board of Elections staff has ranked the vendors but no vendor has been eliminated.

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said he will bring Finance Director Tawana Keels and IT Director Eric Fletcher with him to the county commissioners association conference this week so they can get more information about this issue. He said the commissioners will be “hands on” in the selection process.

The elections staff is meeting Dec. 17 to present the comparisons to their board members. Election officials hope the machines can be purchased by May.

Corbin and Noonan said getting the machines in early 2019 will allow staff time to test the machines and rework some of the office’s processes to fit the new system before the November general election and the 2020 presidential election.

Dixon said the commissioners have the same goal.

““That way they have one run under their belt heading into the presidential,” he said. “That would be my preference, not to have to put it into play in a presidential year, so they’ll have some exposure to how it worked.”

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