Madison County elections are officially headed toward vote centers after the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office released funds last week to go toward the purchasing of new voting equipment for counties still using outdated systems.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last Thursday that $8.24 million in state funds were to be released to fund the equipment, which will go toward 21 counties in Arkansas. In a statement, Sec. John Thurston complimented the state’s release of the funds.
“We are hopeful that the individual counties are in a position to take full advantage of this watershed moment in our state’s history,” Thurston said in the release. “My office looks forward to assisting the counties in completing this process. It is a process that will aid all of the state leadership’s efforts and hopes toward providing the most secure voting experience possible.”
The funds are being released 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 Madison County Clerk Tamitha 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.
“The biggest savings was the switch to five vote centers,” Blocker said. That switch is anticipated to save the county’s election commission nearly $84,000.
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.
While there was some discussion last week regarding seeking different bids for the equipment, Blocker said the Secretary of State’s Office is planning to continue use of machines from Election Systems and Software (ESS). Otherwise, the state would have had to go through a rebidding process, which would likely prevent counties from obtaining equipment in time for the 2020 elections.
“That was a huge factor, because time is of the essence for us,” Blocker said on Tuesday. “We experienced more equipment failure during the school elections [in May] than we had any prior election. We’re on our last leg.”
Blocker said she will meet with ESS officials this Friday, and then the election commission at 2 p.m. at the Madison County Courthouse. After that, she said, the county should have an idea of when the machines could arrive.
“It’s going to be a lot of work to do,” she said. “But because of all of the issues we’ve been having, I’m just so relieved that the state released that money and we’re going to be able to start working on it.”
Blocker said the clerk’s office will mail out information to voters regarding the changes they can expect in next year’s election, and will hold demonstrations prior to the elections so that voters can become familiar with the machines.
She said feedback so far to the county’s decision to transition to vote centers has been mostly positive, though there are still concerns in regard to voting being done entirely on a machine. However, she stressed, a physical ballot will be printed for each voter after they cast their vote, so that they may verify that their votes were cast correctly. Additionally, the state passed a law recently requiring the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners to perform random post-election audits to ensure votes are tabulated correctly.
“It’s all about the security and the integrity of the election process,” Blocker said.
Filing for next year’s election will be in November, with the Preferential Primary Election set for Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Election Day for the General Election is Tuesday, Nov. 3.