County to get state help for new vote tabulation machines

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With some help from Secretary of State John Merrill, the Walker County Commission has agreed to start the process that will allow the county to lease upgraded vote tabulation machines in time for the Nov. 3 elections - with the state essentially covering the cost through 2022. 

The commission voted Monday to put together contracts and make Help America Vote Act applications to the state in the process for that, as well as electronic poll books, also by the General Election this year.

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 initial costs. 

He said after the meeting that the new machines would likely be leased from ES&S - the major provider for election equipment in Alabama - for about $4,600 per election date, and per party for primaries and runoffs. A single constitutional amendment election or a special election could be another election event. 

A written summary given to commissioners about the proposal from ES&S indicates that estimated total recurring cost could amount to $18,000 in Fiscal 2023 and $27,000 in Fiscal 2024 - a reflection of the number of elections in certain years.

However, the state's assistance "protects the county from the initial outlay of about $285,000 from the end of life of our M-100s," the summary for commissioners said. "The big advantage of not owning and just renting is when newer machines are introduced, we will be upgraded to the new machine at no cost." 

Currently the county has 45 precincts, not counting absentee and provisional ballots. Machines will have to be replaced in all those election sites, plus provisions made for machines to help the disabled. A total of 76 M-100 machines and another 45 machines for the disabled are currently used in Walker County, he said a year ago. He said they were purchased a dozen years ago, and have reached their projected lifespan.

Tucker has said some precincts use more than one machine, and extras are also needed sometimes when a machine breaks down. 

Davis said during the primaries this year, a machine in Farmstead "had major issues," and some others also had some problems which delayed the vote totals. 

An election security report last year from the Brennan Center for Justice noted of the M-100s and Automark machines in Alabama, "These aging voting systems are a security risk and less reliable than voting equipment available today. Older systems are generally 'more likely to fail' and are increasingly difficult to maintain." It noted the M-100 is not currently manufactured, and finding replacement parts will be increasingly difficult over time - something Tucker has been concerned about as well. 

The report also noted system-specific security concerns that have been reported, such as "inconsistent vote tallying and reboot times of 15 to 20 minutes." It said these systems "simply lack important security features expected of voting machines today, such as hardware access deterrents for ports." 

Tucker has been assured the machines, which the county owns, can be kept up for this election cycle through 2020. He also noted at times the machines are not hooked up to the internet, and that the biggest security concerns involve the software. 

Deputy Secretary of State and Chief of Staff David Brewer said by phone later in the morning that only eight Alabama counties in the state use the M100. Davis noted that some problems were seen using them in the primaries. 

The newest model from ES&S, the DS-200, has better security features and its functions are more enhanced, Brewer said. 

"The DS-200 has an encrypted thumb drive for election data storage," offering a security feature that the M-100 does not, he said. "It also has an advanced encryption and digital signature to increase security. It holds 2,500 ballots as opposed to the M-100's 1,000-ballot limit. It has a large color touch screen display and it is 50 pounds lighter than the M100."

Tucker told the commission Monday that the new machines are better integrated in construction and open easier than the old machines. "It will be a big upgrade for us," he said. 

Merrill set aside Help American Vote Act funds to pay for the eight counties, including Walker, to upgrade to the DS-200 in time for the Nov. 3 elections, Brewer said. The upgrades will be funded with November's election and will continue through the calendar end of 2022, covering special elections in 2021 and the 2022 elections, he said. 

"Come Jan. 1, 2023, then that funding would cease and the county would need to continue on as it would normally had we had not covered them for that period," Brewer said. 

Brewer said the probate judge will send in paperwork to Brewer to review and then send the money to pay. 

"Walker County is in a good position to help the county's finances to allow the state to cover this cost to have new tabulators with increased security and to have new poll books which will only help the voters get processed earlier and help all officials on Election Day," Brewer said. "It is a good opportunity for Walker County. Judge Tucker has been very proactive in working with us, trying to identify that funding. Everything has worked well and we appreciate Walker County's leadership on trying to be a part of this." 

The county would continue to pay for ballots, Tucker said Monday, but the state reimburses 50 percent of that if state and federal elections are involved. "If it is all federal, it is completely reimbursed," he said. The machines are not reimbursed.

After the state withdraws, the county would pay for software and maintenance costs to pay, as well as maintenance. The ES&S proposal, as outlined in a summary for commissioners, said that would be an additional $17,000 a year on top of the rental - but county officials say those costs are already being incurred each year anyway. 

Contracts on the deal will still have to be approved by the commission, Tucker said. 

Tucker said the current machines can no longer be traded in, but he is hoping other counties or states that use the M-100s might be interested in purchasing them, possibly for parts.

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For more Election 2020 coverage from the Daily Mountain Eagle, visit www.mountaineagle.com/election2020.