County clerk: new equipment could arrive in October

Madison County Clerk Tamitha Blocker (right) updates the county’s election commission on new voting equipment the county will purchase this fall using state and county funds.

Madison County Clerk Tamitha Blocker informed the county election commission last week that new voting equipment should arrive sometime in October, just before the filing period begins for next year’s election.

Madison County will receive $190,692.23 from the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office to go toward the new voting equipment, which will be used in the county’s transition toward vote centers next year. The county will pay an estimated $121,564.07 toward the equipment.

“Hopefully, I’m thinking [the equipment will arrive in] October, no later than the first part of November,” Blocker told the commission last Thursday. “I think we’re in a pretty good position where we’re at.”

Those funds will go toward the purchase of seven DS200 precinct scanners, which scans the ballots and then stores them; 54 Express Votes and Express Vote kiosks; 14 Express Poll tablets, which are used for the voter check-in process; 14 Express Pass printers, which are used to issue correct ballot styles to the voters; Electionware reporting software; CentralPoint software; an Election Reporting Manager (ERM) laptop computer; and implementation services.

Blocker told the commission the county will also have to be responsible for renting a nearby building for the storage of equipment. Talks are still in the process, she said. She added that the county is still looking at options for a trailer to transport the equipment on Election Day.

Blocker said the equipment package, which is being purchased from Election Systems and Software (ESS), will also include several training options. Blocker also said that the she requested a video to be posted online at the county’s website for visitors to preview the equipment prior to voting, and said she hopes to have community demonstrations, as well.

The funds are being released from the Secretary of State’s Office to counties on a cost-share basis. Madison County will receive $190,692.23 from the state, and will dedicate an estimated $106,892.46 toward the purchase of new voting equipment. According to Blocker, the county’s portion of the cost will come from funds saved by the election commission by deciding to switch from individual polling sites to vote centers; savings from the county toward the machines (an account established by the quorum court holds $51,049.66 currently); mineral royalties and more.

The county will also have to spend money toward equipment not covered by the state, including a ballot on-demand printer, estimated to cost $4,005.63; an extra set of memory sticks for the voting machines, estimated to cost $9,165.98; and Internet hot spots, estimated to cost $1,500. That brings the total cost to the county to an estimated $121,564.07.

“They told us again that these are one-time funds,” Blocker told the commission. “Number one, this is the last opportunity for us to get some help, to the tune of $190,000. And number two, our equipment is on its last leg.”

The election commission and quorum court both voted earlier this year to move the county toward vote centers, should funding become available. The commission voted to reduce the number of precincts in the county from 19 – which includes four Huntsville wards – down to 10, and established five vote centers where any registered voter in the county can vote at the Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville; the Hindsville First Baptist Church; the Kingston Community Building; the Wesley Community Center; and the St. Paul Community Building.

That decision, she said, saved the county about $84,000 in the purchasing of the new equipment, and will have further savings moving forward.

“That’s one reason we’re in a position right now to afford to get the equipment,” she said. “Another thing was the quorum court establishing that savings fund.”

Commissioner Larry Easterling praised the commission’s work in preparing for the transition.

“We’ve kind of stayed ahead of all this by making these steps,” he said. “I guess we got criticized a lot about doing this, but we’ve kind of stayed ahead and it’s working out now in our plans here.”

Blocker told the commission that feedback regarding the county’s shift toward vote centers remains mostly positive, outside concerns regarding the lack of being able to vote with a pencil and paper.

“For the most part, the feedback I’ve been getting is mostly positive,” Blocker said on Thursday. “I think there’s a few concerns with people, they like to know there’s a paper ballot as a backup. Again, I’m stressing that the machine is only a ballot marker. You still have a paper ballot, you’re just marking it with a machine.”

Once a person verifies their votes are tabulated correctly, they insert it into a ballot box, which counts the votes. The box is locked, and “in the event of a recount, we pull the papers out and we recount them,” Blocker said.

“I just want everybody to know that it’s not just all electronic voting,” she said. “That’s not how this system works.”

Blocker said the package will also include the ERM laptop for use on election night, when collecting results. That laptop will not have the capabilities of connecting to the Internet, she said. The only piece of the equipment that will be online, she said, will be a poll book that voters register on when entering a vote center, which then tells other centers in the county that they’ve voted. Results are not kept online, but rather on thumb drives, she stressed.

“I think once people see it, they’ll see that it’s not as scary as it sounds,” she said. “There is zero possibility of someone coming through and hacking it through the Internet. From what I’ve been able to gather from visiting with everybody, it’s a much more secure system.”

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