County plans to replace its voting equipment

Anoka County plans to replace the voting equipment used for elections, now that the 2012 general election over.

The hope is that the new system will be in place in time for the 2013 off-year election, which typically includes just school board races and school levy questions on the ballot, but certainly for the next big election in 2014, according to Cindy Reichert, Anoka County elections manager.

While the current optical scan system still works and is very accurate, it is old, Reichert said.

The equipment and its software are no longer supported and new units and parts are no longer available in the marketplace, she said.

In a memo to the Coon Rapids City Council at a recent council work session when she presented the proposal for purchasing a new system, Reichert wrote that the most “unstable” component in the current system is the server.

“The server cannot be replaced and the software that drives the system will not run in a more modern environment,” she wrote.

“It is imperative that the entire voting equipment system be replaced at the earliest opportunity.”

The current voting equipment system, which was purchased in 2000, includes ballot counters, ballot boxes, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant ballot markers, various software and hardware programs, servers, modems and other ancillary system components, according to Reichert.

But replacing the system is not as simple as going out for bids to companies that manufacture and sell the voting equipment systems, Reichert said in an interview.

These systems have to be certified at both and federal and state levels and that has not happened yet, she said.

“We are currently in a certification application ‘blackout time’ period that will lift on Dec. 1,” Reichert said.

The delay which has caused the blackout has been at the federal agency that was put in place to oversee the Help America Vote Act when it was passed by Congress, she said.

In her memo to the Coon Rapids City Council, Reichert said certification was at a standstill for several years and corporate acquisitions have left only a handful of vendors in business.

But she said at least two voting equipment manufacturers are expected to seek state certification in December.

The goal is for the county to go out for bids for a new voting equipment system as early as possible in the new year, according to Reichert.

Whether it will be available for the 2013 election depends on delivery time and the training that will be involved, Reichert said.

In anticipation of the new voting equipment system purchase, county election staff created a work group in 2010 comprising city and school district election administrators to exam the entire election process in the county.

“We also developed a cost sharing proposal for the next equipment purchase that goes beyond the initial capital purchase and provides ongoing support to ensure the future integrity of the system,” Reichert said.

A task force was created earlier this year, comprising city and school administrators and county board members, to work on a multi-jurisdiction election joint powers agreement, which, among other things, would spell out a cost sharing formula for not only the capital costs, but also operational/maintenance costs.

That proposed joint powers agreement will go to the Anoka County Board for approval at its Tuesday, Nov. 27 meeting.

Reichert hopes that cities and school districts, whose boundaries include Anoka County communities, will approve the agreement by the end of the year, she said.

Under the proposed agreement, the county would be the sole owner of the voting equipment system.

Currently, there is separate ownership of the pieces and parts of the system among the county and its cities, while maintenance, hardware and software upgrades and unit replacements are not addressed, according to Reichert.

In fact, the county has been taking care of the operational/maintenance costs itself, but the new system will require that a maintenance/licensing agreement be put in place because of the complexities of the new system and that cost will be part of the proposed joint powers agreement, Reichert said.

The proposed agreement calls for the county to pay 55 percent of the capital and operating costs of the new system with the cities paying 30 percent and school districts 15 percent.

The cost to each individual city and school district within those percentages would be based on their population at the time of their 2010 census.

For the capital costs, the county has received a federal grant, via the state, totaling $310,000, but Reichert has estimated the total cost of the new voting equipment system will be in the $1.3 million range.

The cost sharing formula would kick in for the difference between the grant award and contract cost, Reichert said.

Under the proposal, the payment for each city and school district would be pro-rated over 10 years (2013 through 2022) and paid to the county by Sept. 1 each year.

The operating costs for the cities and school districts would be paid in the form of a fee to the county annually Sept. 1 each year.

Under the existing system, school districts are billed for the costs of their specific elections to the cities and-or county that run them, Reichert said.

Information has been provided by the county to the cities and school districts explaining the proposed joint powers agreement and cost sharing formula so that they can build those costs into their 2013 budget and beyond, she said.

The county budget has also been structured to include all elements of the equipment purchase and operational cost-sharing proposal, according to Reichert.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]