Voting equipment replacement moving ahead

Plans to replace the voting equipment used in Anoka County for future elections have taken a major step forward.

Without comment or dissent, the Anoka County Board Nov. 27, on the recommendation of its Management Committee, approved a joint powers agreement between the county, its municipalities, townships and school districts which spells out cost sharing for the purchase of the new voting equipment as well as its maintenance and operation.

The joint powers agreement now has to be approved by the cities and school districts in the county.

The goal is to have that completed by the end of the year, according to Cindy Reichert, Anoka County elections manager.

“I am very pleased with the outcome,” Reichert said.

The county had received excellent cooperation and enthusiasm from the cities and school districts in the entire, lengthy process, said County Commissioner Robyn West, who chairs the Management Committee.

“A great deal of work has gone into this agreement and it has produced a very fine outcome,” said County Commissioner Jim Kordiak.

“There will be some added costs, but hopefully it will work for all of us.”

The county board action Nov. 27 also authorizes West and Anoka County Board Chairperson Rhonda Sivarajah to approve minor, non-substantive contract changes that might occur during the approval process by the other agencies.

According to Reichert, 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.

While the current optical scan system still works and is very accurate, it is old, Reichert said in a report to the county board.

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

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

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

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

There is currently a certification application “blackout time” period at the federal level that was scheduled to lift Dec. 1, she said.

At least two voting equipment manufacturers are expected to seek state certification in December and the county wants to go out for bids for a new voting equipment system as early as possible in the new year, according to Reichert.

Work on the new voting equipment system project began in 2010 when a work group was created 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.

Earlier this year, a task force was put in place involving city and school administrators and county board members, to work on the joint powers agreement.

Under the agreement, the county will 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.

The county has been taking care of the operational/maintenance costs of the current voting equipment, but the new system will require that a maintenance/licensing agreement be put in place because of its complexities and that cost is built into the joint powers agreement, Reichert said.

The agreement approved by the board 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 the 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 to be in the $1.3 million range.

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

Under the agreement, 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 was provided by the county to the cities and school districts explaining the joint powers agreement and cost sharing formula so that they could build those costs into their 2013 budget and beyond, she said in her report to the board.

The county budget includes funding for the county’s share of all facets of the equipment purchase and operations spelled out in the joint power agreement, according to Reichert.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]