Quantcast

E-vote tab adds up to big trouble

Published December 17, 2006 12:34 am

Contract with Diebold may put ballot expenses out of reach for some cities, counties in Utah
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Democracy isn't cheap, but it sure used to be less expen- sive.

Switching from punch cards to touch-screen voting machines doubled the cost of this year's election.

And taxpayers will continue to hand over millions of dollars to machine-maker Diebold as long as the state uses the equipment.

"I'm not sure any of us realized how much it is going to cost to own and operate this system," said Michael Cragun, elections director for the Lieutenant Governor's Office.

Those costs are so prohibitive that many Utahns in next year's local elections will revert to a voting style used for generations: checking a box on a paper ballot.

But for Utah's bigger cities, hand counting paper ballots is not a realistic option, forcing politicians to search for the most cost-effective way to measure the will of the people.

Cragun will participate in a meeting Tuesday with county clerks and city recorders to discuss their options, including mail-only balloting. City leaders are worried, having heard rumors they may have to triple their election budget if they go with the touch-screen machines. At every level of government, officials grouse about the costs and look upward for help.

"We don't want this to be a profit-making tool for the counties," warns Lincoln Shurtz, lobbyist for the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

County leaders say they are only passing on legitimate costs and complain that the state should cover more of the expenses.

"People like to point fingers at this office," said Joe Demma, chief of staff to the lieutenant governor. "Quite frankly, I would like to redirect that to Washington."

Florida follies

In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential hanging-chad debacle in Florida, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. HAVA forced all states to revamp their election process and paved the way for computerized balloting.

One of the law's chief opponents is the man responsible for implementing it in Utah: Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert.

Shortly after taking office in 2004, Herbert told his lawyers to find a way for Utah to ignore the mandate for new voting technology because Florida-like problems had not surfaced here.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. "Particularly because it is going to cost so much money."

But his lawyers couldn't find any loopholes.

So in August 2005, Herbert signed a contract with Texas-based Diebold Election Systems for $24.5 million. He paid the tab with a federal grant issued through HAVA.

In return, Utah received about 3,000 voting machines and the technical support to run statewide elections this year and in 2008.

But it is now becoming clear that was just the start of the costs.

"We are not sure everyone understood what happened when they flicked that first domino over," Cragun said.

The costs cascaded.

Counties primarily pay for all election costs, and while the state gave them a slew of machines, it still left lots of unpaid bills.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen says she had to double the pay for poll workers because of the necessary training. She now spends $12,000 per month storing the bulky machines. And all of the memory cards, batteries and other essential machine accessories cost her office an extra $138,000 this year.

These costs will continue to accrue as Swensen and other county clerks say they need more machines for the 2008 presidential election.

Under the contract, Utah can use the touch-screen machines until the end of 2009. At that time, the software license expires and the hardware warranties end. Utah can exercise a $3.5 million option to extend the contract until 2015, but that's it.

"Who knows how we will be voting in 2016?" Cragun asked.

Choices

Utah has two options. The most extreme is starting over with a totally new election system. Or clerks can start replacing the 10-year-old machines and the state can negotiate a new contract with Diebold, which has indicated it will charge at least $1 million a year to use the equipment.

Herbert said Diebold's costs are "fair."

"They are not trying to gouge us," he said.

But that doesn't eliminate the "sticker shock," said Cragun.

At least one political scientist says elections shouldn't be cheap.

"The fact that we are actually spending money on elections is not a bad thing," said Thad Hall, a University of Utah professor. "We have underfunded elections historically."

He said the new system offers needed benefits to the voter, though he understands county and city leaders' concerns.

"The state could be playing a much bigger role in the funding of elections," he said.

Herbert's office is trying. Staffers are asking the state Legislature to give them the money to extend the contract to 2015.

They also want $3.4 million to cover the 2008 presidential primary and $1.5 million for a special election just in case Congress gives Utah a fourth congressional seat.

Herbert's office is also sitting on about $1.5 million in leftover HAVA money.

None of these requests helps the cities, which were left out of the contract and must find their own way of counting the ballots in next year's races.

Cities aren't covered by HAVA, so they don't have to use the Diebold machines. Most of Utah's smaller cities will stick to paper ballots.

"The larger cities are the ones who are struggling," said Utah County Clerk Kim Jackson.

The bigger cities in Utah County - Provo, Orem and American Fork - may continue to use the punch card machines. But it is only a short-term fix. The counting software is antiquated and punch card stock is scare because the companies that made it are now switching to electronic voting machines.

Salt Lake County is in a worse bind. Swensen got rid of the punch card machines. She has the touch-screen voting booths and six optical scanners, used for specially created paper ballots.

The optical scanners are slow. She used to be able to count 1,000 punch cards in a minute. It would take her one hour to count 1,000 optical scan ballots.

Most Salt Lake County cities have contracted with Swensen for election services and are expected to do so again. Cities paid her office $342,000 for election services in 2005, a number that is sure to balloon.

The ballot

is in the mail

Swensen is pushing for the least expensive alternative, which is a by-mail-only election in which voters would apply for a ballot and then mail it to her office for counting in the days leading up to Election Day.

Even Swensen calls this controversial idea a long shot because she would need legislative approval before moving forward. By-mail proponents would have to overcome the concerns of people like Herbert.

"I'm not an advocate of a statewide by-mail process," he said. "You have at least more potential for mistakes, more potential for fraud."

Many other states, most famously Oregon, collect ballots through the mail. Utah gathers mail ballots from those in the military, those on religious missions and homebound residents.

Rose Mary Jones, president of the Utah Municipal Clerks Association, said the state should consider by-mail voting in the future.

One of her biggest frustrations with the whole discussion is that Utah has ushered in a new high-tech way to vote, only to leave the machines dormant for many elections.

"Now there will be a variety of ways to vote," she said.

mcanham@sltrib.com