Election equipment vendors pitch wares to Monroe County officials

Monroe County is looking to get some new election equipment. The 2020 budget adopted last Tuesday by the county council includes a general obligation bond, out of which around $1 million could be used on the purchase of new voting machines. The council’s decision on the bond issuance isn’t expected until its November meeting.

On Monday afternoon, four different vendors pitched their wares to county officials as part of their response to the RFP (request for proposals) that’s been issued by the county. The RFP says the county is looking either to lease or purchase the equipment.

Vendors on hand to demonstrate their voting machines at the courthouse on Monday were: Hart Intercivic, out of Austin, Texas;  Election Systems & Software (ES&S), out of Omaha, Nebraska; Unisyn Voting Systems  out of Vista, California; and MicroVote General Corporation from Indianapolis.

Proposals from vendors have to be turned in to the board of county commissioners by Oct. 22. The timeline in the RFP is described as a “best estimate.” After possible interviews, the evaluation of the proposals is planned for Nov. 2. A decision by commissioners could be made at their regular meeting on Nov. 6.

By Jan. 2, 2020 it’s hoped that a work plan will be provided by the vendor, that includes a training schedule, onsite testing, vendor programing. In any case, the work plan is supposed to be in place no later than March 2. Monroe County wants the voting system to be delivered by Feb. 5, 2020.

The RFP states that the new equipment will be used in the 2020 Primary Election on May 5, 2020.

Chair of the board of county commissioners, Julie Thomas, told The Beacon on Monday that commissioners, county councilors, and election board would score the proposals.

The scoring criteria are laid out in the RFP. Satisfaction of basic voting system requirements counts for 30 percent of the score. The implementation plan also counts for 30 percent, and includes items like support while voting is going on, the lines of communication, and software updates. Experience counts for 10 percent of the score.

Cost is 30 percent of the score—the lowest bid gets the maximum point value, with others receiving a percentage of the maximum. A vendor’s percentage of the cost points is calculated by taking the lowest bid and dividing by the vendor’s bid.

On Monday, county officials peppered the vendors with questions, many of them centered on the way the a paper trail for possible audits is created. Monroe County election supervisor Karen Wheeler told The Beacon previously that her preference is for pen-on-paper ballots, because she believes that’s what Monroe County voters want. The decision on that choice will be up to the county board of commissioners and the election board.

Mail-in absentee ballots are marked with pen on paper in any case, so equipment from all vendors has to accommodate that scenario. One approach offered by vendors for in-person voting—early voting or on Election Day—is have voters make their ballot selection using an electronic device, which then prints off their ballot, filled in with their selections.

For some vendors, the ballot that’s generated with machine-printed selections based on the voter’s electronic choices resembles a cash register receipt. Receipt-style ballots still have to serve two functions. They have to be easily scannable by a machine when the ballots are actually counted. They also have to be readable by human eyeball, so a voter can check that the receipt reflects their intent after they’ve voted, and in case the election results need to be audited.

For other vendors, the ballot is virtually indistinguishable from the pen-on-paper style ballot, except that the circles are filled in perfectly, as only a machine can do. That’s how Hart’s machines work. Hart’s representative, Lawrence Leach, said when the tally of the ballots is done through an optical scan, the way a ballot is counted depends on the pixel density of the circle that’s supposed to be filled in, the same way a pen-on-paper ballot is scanned.

Kevin McGinnis, who was demonstrating the Unisyn system on Monday, pointed out that the electronic device that marks the ballots does not store any information about the ballot. That means it can be used for early voting, because Indiana election law prohibits counting any votes before Election Day. Central to McGinnis’s pitch—for the basic approach of using an electronic device to mark paper ballots—was the idea that all the ballots effectively get printed on demand, which means considerable cost savings.

For all vendors, the electronic devices used for marking paper ballots are supposed to function as universally accessible voting equipment—they’re generally equipped with headphones.

Willie Wesley, who was representing Election Systems & Software equipment, made a pitch for electronic devices that mark paper ballots, based on the idea of voter intent. If a recounted election comes down to human judges trying to discern the intent of a voter, it’s not always possible to tell, Wesley said.

Wesley showed a sample ballot with two circles filled in, but one of them had an ‘X’ on top of the filled-in circle. What happened there? Did the voter mean to indicate the choice with the ‘X’ was not the choice they wanted? Or did the voter mean to emphasize that it was their choice? An electronic device that marks the ballot eliminates from the paper any doubt about voter intent, Wesley said.

The county’s current equipment is leased from Hart. Its poll books are from ES&S. On Monday afternoon, Wesley told county officials that the county would receive upgraded poll books from ES&S at no extra charge, as soon as they are certified. He could not demonstrate them on Monday, he said, because Indiana state law says he can’t demonstrate any equipment that has not been certified.

At a recent meeting of the county council, councilor Trent Deckard said he wanted to make sure the voting equipment is procured without any unnecessary delay. From his former position with the State Election Division he knew that there are always unanticipated problems that arise.

According to county councilor Geoff McKim’s summary of the budget last week, the 2020 budget includes $1,253,688 for elections for what he said would “likely be an unprecedented election.” That’s separate from the $1 million dollars for the election equipment.