Voting machine support costly

Elections boards and counties stunned by expense;

state aid for training ends after primary


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Mary Beth Lane



The cost of service contracts for new touchscreen voting machines has left county elections officials across Ohio in sticker shock.


Many say they need the extra -- and expensive -- technical support to program and run the machines properly and ensure the integrity of elections.


But a spokesman said Secretary of State J.Kenneth Blackwell thinks counties can run the systems themselves after the May 2 primary election, when state-paid training and technical support ends.


Counties are not required to have extra technical support after that. Itís their choice.


The full coverage plan offered by Diebold Election Systems to service its touch-screen voting machines in Fairfield County, for example, would cost $90,000 a year. Partial-coverage options are available at $60,000 and $21,000 a year.


"It just about blew our minds away," said Alice Nicolia, director of the county Board of Elections.


In poorer Perry County, a Diebold service contract is out of the question.


"We just do not have the money," said Janie DePinto, elections board director. Her board is considering hiring a cheaper consultant to provide technical support at election times.


DePinto plans to ask county commissioners for more money.


The Fairfield County elections board already has asked county commissioners for more money for a service contract and other expenses, and got an angry response.


The elections board is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss its budget. The $714,000 that county commissioners gave the board this year is inadequate and they need roughly double, Nicolia has said.


Part of the money sought is to service the countyís 492 touch-screen voting machines and to buy more to meet a new state law requiring one machine per 175 voters. The county has 93,000 registered voters and is growing.


Fairfield is among 47 counties that picked Diebold touch-screens. Costs for service contracts with Diebold were higher than anticipated.


The state has a five-year warranty contract with Diebold and Election Systems & Software, another company that sold voting machines to Ohio counties, for the equipment itself. Under the contract, the state is paying the companies to train and provide technical support to county elections boards through the May primary.


After that, counties are on their own.


Fairfield was among 44 of Ohioís 88 counties that used new voting machines for the first time in November.


Elsewhere in central Ohio, Franklin, Delaware, Pickaway, Union, Ross and Knox counties will use their Election Systems & Software touch-screens for the first time in the May 2 primary.


Until then, itís difficult to gauge whether extra technical support will be needed, said Janet Brenneman, director of the Delaware County Board of Elections.


A company spokeswoman declined to discuss the terms of service contracts that Election Systems & Software might offer its customers.


When Diebold began distributing proposals to county elections officials at their conference in January, some were shocked.


So were county commissioners.


"This completely blind-sided the county," said Ray Feikert, a Holmes County commissioner in northeastern Ohio. "Itís kind of a back-door expense that no one saw coming."


Dieboldís service contracts are priced depending on county size, level of support desired and number of elections annually.


For Holmes and Perry counties, the proposals are $16,000, $35,000 or $50,000 annually. Like Perry County, Holmes County might search for a cheaper option, Feikert said.


County elections workers should be able to run the new voting equipment as ably as they did punch-card systems. Blackwell and county officials agree on that much.


They differ on how long it could take to learn.


Until counties go through a few full election cycles, including primary, general and special, it makes sense to have technical support, said Steven Harsman, president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials and director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.


"I donít disagree with (Blackwellís) concept," Harsman said. "But I think itís too early to let a county be on their own without support. I look on it as an insurance policy."


Dieboldís full coverage would cost $110,000 annually in Montgomery County. Harsmanís board is considering buying partial coverage and using a county information-technology worker for extra technical support.


The Fairfield County elections board has hired its own information-technology worker and plans to buy partial coverage from Diebold.


"The irony is that the small counties will have a bigger need for these contracts, but they wonít have the money to pay for them," Harsman said."Elections boards are going to county commissioners, and commissioners are kicking and screaming. Itís not a pretty situation at all.But when the dust settles, a high percentage of counties are going to need this, and county commissioners are going to have to find the funding."


Blackwell disagrees. He thinks counties wonít need technical support after May, said spokesman James Lee.


"Certainly there is a learning curve," he said."Weíre confident, though, that the boards of elections, with all the training and assistance we have provided through the May primary, will be well-prepared for the November election."


Ultimately, itís up to the counties, though.


"They have to assess their needs and decide for themselves, working with their county commissioners," Lee said.


State law allows county boards of elections to seek a court order for funding. Fairfield County board members have told commissioners it might come to that.


©2006, The Columbus Dispatch



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