Benton County eyes election costs

Posted: August 30, 2017 at 1:05 a.m.

NWA DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Kelly Copelin of Gravette votes early at the Benton County Clerk's Office in Bentonville.

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County election officials are working on two budgets for 2018 because no decision on whether the county will get new voting machines and equipment has been made.

One budget includes new machines, and the other has the county reverting to paper ballots.

What’s Next

Benton County’s Election Commission will meet at 1 p.m. Sept. 6 in the commission office, 1204 S.W. 14th St. in Bentonville, to review election budgets for 2018.

Source: Benton County

The county has a Sept. 8 deadline for officials to have budgets submitted to the comptroller's office. The Quorum Court will make the decision on the overall budget by the end of the year.

Kim Dennison, election coordinator, told the Election Commission on Tuesday she'll get cost estimates for election supplies needed if the county uses paper ballots and precinct-based voting.

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"We're faced with a whole lot of challenges going into next year," Dennison said.

Recent changes in state law allow school elections to be held on the same day as primary and general elections beginning next year. Election officials have said the older equipment in use can't handle the increase in ballot styles from around 388 in the 2016 primary election to more than 1,300 in 2018.

The state has chosen new voting machines to replace older equipment, but state money to offset the cost has been limited to a handful of counties in a pilot program and some money later released by the Secretary of State's Office. Benton County drafted a $2.6 million list of equipment to replace the machines. County officials hoped Gov. Asa Hutchinson might release money to pay some of the cost, but Hutchinson told officials at a recent Association of Arkansas Counties meeting there were other demands and he couldn't say any would be available for voting machines.

County officials pared the list to what they see as the minimum needed for the 2018 election year. The cost is estimated at $1.5 million. Officials expect a smaller turnout in 2018 than the 97,738 people who voted in 2016 because there's no presidential contest. An additional 175 voting machines with a cost of about $750,000 would be needed for the 2020 presidential election year.

"We're at $2.5 million regardless of how you look at it," said Russ Anzalone, commission chairman.

Anzalone said the county would need to find and pay more election workers if paper ballots and precinct-based voting replaces the electronic voting and voter centers the county has used. Even if several precincts can be consolidated, Anzalone said, the number of poll workers will increase. The county used 488 poll workers for the 2016 general election, where two-thirds of the votes were cast during early voting, Dennison said. If the county cuts early voting because of the need to secure the paper ballots, the county would need between 650 and 700 poll workers to handle a larger election day turnout.

Jim Bemis of Rogers, who attended Tuesday's meeting, asked the commissioners and staff about the changes in election laws and ballot information and how the public would be informed. He said his background was in communications and volunteered to help spread information on social media or other methods.

"I don't know how one person can do this," Bemis said.

NW News on 08/30/2017