Walker County appears now to be on its way to following the wishes of Secretary of State John Merrill to switch to electronic poll books by the Nov. 3 elections, as Help America Vote Act funds are being made available for the entire initial purchase.
The Walker County Commission voted Monday to allow the county's probate judge write up contracts and make Help America Vote Act applications to the state start the process for that, as well as replacing aging tabulation machines in the county.
Chairman Jerry Bishop and District 4 Commissioner Stephen Aderholt were absent due to sickness, with Aderholt's illness described as sinus related. District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis presided.
Walker County Probate Judge A. Lee Tucker made a presentation on the needs, which he has talked about in the past. He said the state began talking with the county in June about the state picking up the purchase cost.
Currently the county has 45 precincts, not counting absentee and provisional ballots.
Tucker said after the meeting the electronic polling books would likely cost roughly around $90,000, which will be paid from HAVA funds. However, he noted final selections have not been made yet. About 90 devices would be obtained.
Merrill has been pushing for the electronic poll books in the county for some time now, essentially moving away from the printed voter list. Brewer said in 2016 Merrill asked the Alabama Legislature to allow the use the device.
Today, after giving a photo ID, which is many times a driver's license, the voter has his or her name marked off the list by hand, Deputy Secretary of State and Chief of Staff David Brewer said by phone later Monday morning . The electronic poll book - which in some versions actually uses an iPad tablet as a device - has the voter list installed.
"You give them your ID. It reads the scan off the back of your barcode on your driver's license, and it finds you in the voter list and marks off the (party) ballot you pick if it is in the primary," he said.
Brewer described it as a check-in system that expedites the process for voters and shortens the lines waiting to vote.
"It also - and this is very important - it significantly reduces the risk of errors by the election officials on Election Day when they administer Alabama's crossover voting law," he said.
If one asks for a Republican ballot for the primary and you do not use the poll book, officials are going to put an "REP" by your name. A "DEM" is used for a Democratic ballot and "NP" for non-partisan, such as an amendment ballot only.
"They write that in. The (electronic) poll book, when you tell them you are voting Republican, Democrat or non-partisan, it automatically logs it. The error rate in some people's handwriting, some people can make an REP look like a DEM, and a DEM look like an REP," he said. "It significantly reduces the errors from that happening."
Later, when one also goes to the runoff, the electronic poll book automatically determines you voted earlier in a party's primary and gives you the runoff ballot for that same party, he said, preventing the error of handing out the other party's ballot, he said.
Three certified vendors are in the state now for electronic poll books, Brewer said. Two of them are being considered by Walker County, as they are actually in use in the state: Knowink Poll Pads of St. Louis, Missouri, and the Express Poll Tablet from ES&S, the national company that supplies election materials and equipment across Alabama.
"We're making our final decisions this week," Tucker said Monday.
Tucker, who has been in discussions with Brewer, wrote to the commission on July 31, saying that local officials have seen demonstrations of both systems - the ES&S version was not seen until last week. They also asked around to those counties using the Knowink Poll Pads.
"The consensus is that the Poll Pads are a more user-friendly system as well as being a less expensive solution," the letter said. Tucker said Monday he feels the Knowink system - the first system certified by the state in 2016 - is better, and he understands poll workers like it and is effective on the crossover voting situation.
"It seems to be an easier to use system," he said.
The county can pick the vendor they desire, as long as they are certified by the secretary of state, Brewer said.
County officials "will send me their quote. I will take a look at it and make sure the invoice looks legitimate," essentially policing what the vendors sent out "because we want to make sure Walker County gets the best deal," he said. If approved, Merrill's office would then send the money for the initial purchase, paid for 100 percent through the Help America Vote Act. The county would then own the equipment outright.
The purchase will include the iPad, the initial software, the carrying case, the stand, the stylus - "all the stuff that makes it work," he said. Printers or other accessories will not be covered. Software upgrades would be undertaken by the county.
"The heaviest cost would be the initial purchase," Brewer said, with annual maintenance "significantly less."
Currently 27 counties using the Knowink system, Brewer said, while 12 counties use the ES&S system, meaning 37 out of 67 counties have gone to electronic poll books.
Merrill's goal is to have all 67 counties using electronic poll books for the Nov. 3 General Election.
Tucker said the company would offer help in case of Election Day problems.
Written summaries show Knowink would sell 74 units for $62,900, but Tucker said he was told he needed about 90 units. He said he thinks he would be able to get the state to reimburse for that many devices. The unit price plus software configuration, shipping and handling was listed at $850 each, or $76,500. ES&S offered 90 units at about $96,000.
The delay on formally closing a deal on the electronic polling books, and to some extent the tabulation machines expected to come from ES&S, was owed in part to the fact ES&S didn't have anything to show on the electronic poll books until last week.
Contracts on the deal will still have to be approved by the commission, Tucker said.
While Davis said he has been more reluctant to get the electronic polling books, the county needs to take advantage of state funds being made available. He was concerned about where about $10,000 in training costs would come from.
Tucker noted some additional HAVA funds for 2021 are not impacted and could still be used if needed, and noted some funds that would have been paid soon in connection of the M-100s will also be freed up.
For more Election 2020 coverage from the Daily Mountain Eagle, visit www.mountaineagle.com/election2020.