Electronic or paper? Butler County elections board weighs decision that will cost millions

The Butler County Board of Elections plans to recommend the county purchase one of the two Dominion voting systems — with a preference toward the direct-recording electronic (DRE) system.

Board members met for nearly three hours Monday morning to hone the proposal they plan to submit to the Butler County Commission. The board will meet once more in February before presenting its recommendation to the commissioners the first week of March, said Deputy Director Eric Corbin, who is assembling the proposal.

While the board will make a recommendation for each type of voting system, it is anticipated it will prefer the DRE system because that’s what the county has used since 2005. Board members said it will eliminate re-educating voters and poll workers on a new system, and it would eliminate human errors which can occur when dealing with paper ballots.

RELATED: Deadline approaching for new Butler County voting machines decision (January 2019)

“I think the move is going with this (electronic voting) system, getting away from (paper) ballots, is that 90 percent of our issues are on paper ballots — whether it’s the absentees or the provisionals, or those types of things,” said board member Chris Wunnenberg. “The human involvement in those is what our concerns are.”

Ohio allocated $114.5 million to local boards of elections for new voting equipment, and Butler County will receive $3.2 million. However, Butler County would be responsible for any costs above that allocation. Based on the county’s need — and depending on which of the five state-approved vendors the board chooses — it’s likely the new voting machines will cost more than the state’s allocation.

Board members looked into purchasing and lease options, but on Monday they were dissatisfied with Dominion’s lease option.

The board is planning to spread out the cost of the voting machine system over 10 years. Taxpayers would be on the hook for just under $5.19 million if the county goes with Dominion’s electronic voting system, and just under $3.1 million for its paper voting system. Both prices do not include the $3.2 million state payment.

The county must decide by the spring on a system in order to receive the new machines by July so staff can test and customize the machines to the election office’s protocols for the November 2019 general election. The Ohio Secretary of State’s office last year required any board of elections considering purchasing new equipment have it in place for this year’s general election. Otherwise, boards of elections are not allowed to buy new voting machines until 2021.

The state contract prices are good until 2023.

RELATED: Butler County doing deep dive on new voting machines (December 2018)

The faith in Butler County’s 2005-purchased machines is waning among the county elections office’s information technology staff, officials said. The elections board’s database administrator, Jay Klein, wrote several years ago to the two election directors that his confidence level with the system “is decreasing” as machines frequently break down.

The Butler County Board of Elections owns about 1,600 machines but typically uses between 1,200 and 1,300 in any given election, depending on the number of registered voters. Ohio law requires one voting machine for every 175 registered voters. Butler County, as of the November 2018 election, has 254,748 registered voters.

The board hopes to present a clear message to commissioners when making its recommendation.

“I think in fairness, when we go to the commissioners, we need to say, ‘Here are our concerns,’” said elections board member Mariann Penska.

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