Up to $7 million worth of new touchscreen voting machines and high-speed counting equipment could be coming to Lorain County before the 2020 general election.
“Directors of elections across the state have been asked to have a conversation about the future of voting equipment,” Lorain County Board of Elections director Paul Adams told Lorain County commissioners May 31.
General wear and tear — but not concerns with security or counting accuracy — has pushed the call to upgrade.
Machines used now in the county were built in 2004 and installed in 2005. There are 1,200 units available for use with an additional 800 backups.
However, approximately 20 to 25 are failing annually, which gives the current system one to two more years before reaching a critical need for replacement, Adams said.
“When I say the units are no longer operational, I want to point out we’ve seen no issues as far as tabulating ability, problems with memory cards, or those sort of issues,” he said. “These are issues with the hardware, the printers, and the stands holding up the units. They were stands specially designed for these voting units and they’re breaking down.”
The need to purchase high-speed optical scanners to count mail-in ballots comes from a marked increase in absentee voters in 2016, up 35,000 compared to 2012.
Adams said high-speed scanners were rented for the election last November after hand counts in 2012 extended through the night.
“Hand scanners aren’t going to cut it for us when dealing with a large ballot in a presidential election,” he said. “In 2012, if the race would have been close for president, the national media would have been in our parking lot at the board of elections because we didn’t get done scanning all those paper ballots until 7 a.m. on the Wednesday after the election.”
Federal funds totaling $3.5 million completely paid for the county’s 2004 purchase. Adams and commissioners sound like a 50-50 split with Columbus is now a more realistic expectation.
There could be a much better scenario, but it’s unlikely, said Adams.
“There’s talk of an 80-20 split,” with the state picking up the larger part of the tab, he said. “Earlier in the year, we were hoping there was going to be some money provided in this year’s state budget by the end of June. As we get closer to that, it looks less and less likely. The money could become available in the capital budget in 2018.”
“The priority down there seems to be finding tax breaks for wealthy Ohioans instead of taking care of families or local governments,” said commissioner Matt Lundy. “I wouldn’t anticipate seeing any state dollars this year. Much like having a home, though, expenses like this don’t go away, like having to replace a hot water tank. I hope the state meets us halfway on this, and hopefully a little more than halfway.”
Adams said the $7 million estimated cost for new machines is a “ballpark figure” and could be significantly lower once final numbers are tallied.
He added the elections board has decided to stick with touchscreen units because it eliminates roughly $400,000 in costs associated with printing paper ballots for every registered voter.
“Those costs are general and aren’t custom fit to the size of various counties,” he said. “A vendor told me they have to submit these proposals to the state as a general number. But for a county of our size, that cost should be lower due to the quantity of machines we’ll be purchasing.”
About 1,175 new touchscreen units would cover the county’s needs, Adams said.
While the hope is to have the units in place by the 2020 presidential election, he said additional time is needed for poll workers to become familiar with the changes.
“From an elections administration standpoint, that means we’re going to want to begin implementing this no later than 2019. There’s an awful lot of training that needs to happen with our 1,200 poll workers in the county. They do an incredible job every year. However, they only do this twice a year.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.