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Jackson approves $700,000 for new voting machines

After more than three years of anticipating the expenditure, Jackson County has allocated funds to replace its recently decertified voting machines. 

“How many years have we been coming here saying we need a million dollars?” Board of Elections Chairman Kirk Stephens told county commissioners during a Dec. 10 work session. “The good news is maybe not quite a million, but the bad news is the day is here. The year is here. Finally.”

The machines must be replaced to comply with a 2016 state law that prohibits use of voting machines that don’t “use or produce a paper ballot.” The law gave a deadline of Sept. 1, 2019, to comply, but that deadline was extended to Dec. 1 in separate legislation passed in 2018. 

“We’d been holding off just to see if the state would come up with any funds, and that’s absolutely not going to happen,” said County Manager Don Adams. 

Now, the county needs to make the purchase quickly. The machines must be in place for the March 3 Primary Election, which means they actually have to be ready to go by Feb. 13, when early voting begins. 

Before the county election board can actually purchase the machines, the state election board must approve the selection. But that’s mostly a formality, said Stephens, and with the Primary Election coming up so soon the board is trying to get everything lined up so it can pull the trigger as soon as it receives the official OK from the state. By approving the funds now, he said, commissioners will help that process go more quickly. 

Despite other media reports to the contrary, Elections Director Lisa Lovedahl noted, Jackson County will not be affected by any lack of inventory from the vendor. 

“We have been confirmed by the vendor Jackson County will have our machines for the March primary,” she said. 

Despite being in the final stages of arranging the purchase, the election board does not have a precise cost for the new machines.

“I wish I could tell you right down to the penny how much this is going to cost, but I can’t and I’m sorry,” said Stephens. “But we’re saying $700,000 and we’re pretty confident we will not be over that amount.”

The election board tested the new machines during this year’s municipal election in Sylva, and the test went well, said Stephens, though the board did learn some lessons that will help the shift go more smoothly when the machines are implemented countywide. 

Currently, voters make their selections on a touch screen, and once they’ve confirmed their choices a receipt is printed in the machine’s interior. With the new machines, voters make their choices using a similar touch screen interface. However, when they’re finished the machine will print out a human-readable ballot that the voter will then walk over to a separate machine that will record and store the ballot. Ballots will be locked behind three different locks. 

If a voter looks down at the printed-out ballot and sees a mistake, poll workers can spoil the ballot and provide a new one — any one voter can do that up to three times. 

During this year’s test election in Sylva, some voters expressed concern that people could look at their ballot as they walked it across to the tabulation machine, so the elections board might look into providing privacy folders or screens to shield the ballot marking screens when it does the complete rollout this year. 

“One thing we’ve got to watch for is to make sure people don’t leave with that ballot in their hand,” said Stephens. Votes aren’t counted unless they’re fed into the machine, so poll workers will be tasked with monitoring voters as they exit the polling place. 

The elections board plans to have two ballot scanners in each precinct so that the location will be covered should one machine fail. Depending on the size of the precinct, each location might have six to eight marking machines. 

The new machines will come from the same manufacturer as the current equipment, and while there are multiple options for state-approved machines, many counties are going with the same model as Jackson.

The board has done its due diligence to arrive at that conclusion, said Stephens. Members have been to multiple conferences featuring demonstrations and sample voting machines, attended a mandatory training session to review all the possible choices, and completed the test election in Sylva. 

“We as a board have agreed that’s the equipment we need,” Stephens said. “We think it works best for Jackson County. We think it works better than the other selections, quite frankly.”

The current equipment is still functional, even though it doesn’t meet the new state standards. The vendor has told the board it will pay $61,000 to buy the old equipment back, Lovedahl told commissioners. Other states, and even other countries, still use that type of machine. 

Stephens said he’s optimistic about the machines’ potential to serve voters well. 

“I have high hopes for this. I really think it’s going to work for us,” he said. 

Commissioners approved the $700,000 expenditure during their Dec. 17 meeting in a unanimous vote from those present. Commissioner Mickey Luker did not attend the meeting. 

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