County weighing move to replace 78 voting machines

by Kate Shunney

A routine request for a grant resolution last week turned into a lengthy discussion about how Morgan County voters will cast their ballots in the future.

County Clerk Kim Nickles requested a resolution from the County Commissioners on Wednesday, August 1 in support of a grant request from Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds.

Nickles, who had just returned from a state meeting of County Clerks, said the federal HAVA funds would pay the majority of costs for new voting machines for the county.

Commission President Joel Tuttle questioned the resolution, which said the County Commission would commit to paying 50 percent of the cost of the new machines. He asked how much that commitment would add up to.

Nickles said an estimate from Election Systems & Software (ES&S) put the price tag for new machines, election equipment and the accompanying software at $453,000.

Commissioners were surprise at the figure, and said they weren’t prepared to sign a resolution about the HAVA grant request without learning more about the machines, and if the county really needed to replace the current touch-screen models.

“I’d vote to go back to paper ballots before I’d do that,” Commissioner Bob Ford said. During his first term in office, the county moved from paper ballots to the touch screen machines. Most are now more than 15 years old.

Clerk Nickles said the county wouldn’t have to pay the full amount of the estimate. She said the grant would cover 50 percent of the cost of the machines, and possibly a larger share of new voter books.

“This is the only opportunity. The machines we have are obsolete,” Nickles said.

She said the estimate was for an optical scan voting system, where voters would use paper ballots, then feed them into a reader machine.

Ford said changing the way county residents vote is a big deal, and would require training for poll workers and staff, plus public education sessions for voters.

Commissioner asked Nickles to come back to the next meeting in August with more specific information about the machines, costs and whether other counties would sell their touch-screen machines to have as backups for Morgan County elections.

Nickles said the county currently has 78 machines. Those are used in 13 precincts, for early voting at the courthouse and absentee ballots.

She said she wasn’t sure the county would need that many of the new type of machine.

Nickles said she would check on the availability of touch screen machines from other counties. She noted that if the county passed up HAVA grants funds, any machines they would replace later would have to be paid for entirely by the count