State evaluating new voting machines for purchase but counties may have to pick up the tab

With switch to mostly by-mail voting, leaders seek systems that may count those ballots more rapidly.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sean Schilling who is visually impaired, is guided through the use of a voting machine manufactured by Voting Solutions by Bliss Foutty, President of Election IQ. Companies demonstrated new voting machines that the state is considering buying during a hands on presentation at the Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.

In 2005, just a few Utah absentee voters cast ballots by mail. And Utah and its counties had just bought new voting machines — helped by nationwide federal grants after the hanging-chad plagued Bush vs. Gore presidential election in 2000.

“We’re over a decade old on this equipment, and it’s aging. Also, it was purchased at a time when there weren’t many by-mail voters. Now we have a majority of registered voters in Utah voting by mail. So we need to make adjustments,” says Mark Thomas, director of elections for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Cox’s office invited vendors from around the nation to show off new voting equipment in the state Capitol to officials and the public on Wednesday — paving the way to allow purchases before next year’s elections.

Thomas said officials want to address concerns about delays — of up to days — in getting election results now that most counties are voting mostly by mail.

“Part of that is we don’t have the right equipment to handle the huge quantity of by-mail ballots that are coming in. This would help with that,” including consideration of high-speed scanners for large counties, he said.

Thomas added that officials are also looking at how easily different systems could identify and display problems with ballots — such as voting for too many candidates in a particular race — to allow quick resolution of problems.

But even by-mail counties need voting machines for in-person voting that state law still requires on Election Day, and for early in-person voting.

Thomas said groups representing the disabled were invited especially to try out various voting machines to give feedback on Wednesday.

“For visually impaired voters, we wanted to see how easy it is for them to use this equipment and audio-voting options. There have been some concerns about that over the past decade,” he said.

Thomas said the state hopes to choose a preferred vendor within a month, and start work on contracts. While state law does not require counties to all use the same vendor, they found in the past decade — after federal grants helped to buy the same machines statewide — that it makes joint training, repairs and reporting of results easier.

However, the Legislature has appropriated only a small amount toward replacing machines: $270,000 to start the process. Thomas said more money will be sought, but counties likely will have to come up with much of the money on their own.

“All of this is in effort so that in 2018, those counties that are ready and willing will have a road map to be able to replace this equipment,” Thomas said. “They’ll have the vendor selected, the equipment selected.”