PINE BLUFF -- As early voting enters its second week and the March 3 primary election looms, 11 of Arkansas' 75 counties, including Jefferson County, will be recording votes on aging equipment that is sometimes balky, cranky, and prone to glitches that can turn the process of counting ballots into an endurance contest.
Sixty-four counties have acquired voting equipment that is either new this year or purchased in the past several years.
Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stuart "Stu" Soffer said the county's 160 iVotronics machines, manufactured by Election Systems & Software, have been in service since 2006 and are showing their age, making the closing of polling sites and counting votes more laborious with each election cycle. The county purchased 175 iVotronics machines in 2005, all of which were damaged by flooding in the Election Commission offices in early 2018.
The county is now using surplus machines that were donated by Grant and Craighead counties when they upgraded to the new Election Systems & Software system.
"The machines are falling apart," Soffer said. "I put 12 machines over there (at the Jefferson County Courthouse) for early voting, and one of them dropped dead the first day."
Soffer said he has asked the secretary of state's office to expedite grant funding to allow the county to get new voting equipment by the Nov. 3 general election, noting that federal funding through the Help America Vote Act has been secured in the amount of $5 million.
"I'm anticipating a crisis on March 3rd," he said. "I pray it doesn't happen, but I'm anticipating and preparing for one."
Soffer said that when doing logic and accuracy testing on the county's voting machines, technicians could not use the testing protocol used in past elections because the volume of data overwhelmed the machines. He said technicians were forced to use a different protocol that inputs less data into the machines in order to complete the testing.
"The same test we used four years ago, we could not use this election," he said. "The test was overwhelming for the machines because the motherboards are old."
Soffer said testing was done to certify the accuracy of the machines but that the difficulties encountered could be a foreshadowing of widespread equipment failures on Election Day.
Mickey "Stubby" Stumbaugh, chairman of the Lonoke County Election Commission, conducted that county's last election on the iVotronics machines during the May 2018 primary, before the county switched to the new system for the November 2018 general election. He described the difference between the two systems as being like "night and day."
"Those machines were crap," Stumbaugh said of the iVotronics equipment. "They had been stored in a non-climate-controlled building for years and they were getting old."
In the primary election that year, Stumbaugh said, polling sites reported multiple equipment failures throughout the day, and election officials worked until well into the day after the election to tabulate the results. By November, Lonoke County had switched over to the new ExpressVote system, the result being that the votes in the general election were tabulated within an hour of the polls closing.
"It was like night and day," Stumbaugh said. "There was no comparison."
To purchase 140 of the new voting machines for Jefferson County will require an expenditure of nearly $1 million, a little over one-third of which the county would have to pay, according to a formula worked out by the secretary of state's office.
Soffer suggested that the state could absorb the cost of the new machines, saying that news from the governor's office has indicated that tax collections are up substantially for the year.
Chris Powell, spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said such a move is not likely.
"I don't anticipate that that is the direction that we're going on it," Powell said.
Kurt Naumann, director of administration and legislative affairs in the secretary of state's office, said a deal that was worked out more than a year ago is still the only option on the table for Jefferson County to obtain the new equipment with help from the state.
"We developed a formula that has a fiscal distribution between what the state will pay and what the county will pay based on estimates that were submitted to our election coordinators over a year ago," Naumann said. "The understanding is that the county can either accept to pay the amount that is their local share or reduce the amount of machinery to a point where they'll be able to pay, perhaps, a lower share of their cost."
Naumann said that for the county to purchase the 140 new machines the Election Commission says are needed, the state would be required to spend $618,434 and Jefferson County to come up with $321,367, money that Soffer said the county does not have.
"We will activate our elected officials to work on it," Soffer said. "We've got two senators, we've got four representatives, and they need to get proactive. These voting machines are atrocious, and the formula they worked out is defective. They said Jefferson County was capable of paying $300,000 when Jefferson County couldn't meet payroll at the jail."
Early voting continues through Monday at the Jefferson County Courthouse. On Election Day, voters will head to one of 39 polling sites around the county to cast their ballots.
As of Saturday, according to the county clerk's office, 1,325 of the county's 43,408 registered voters had cast their ballots in early voting.
Other counties with outdated equipment are Bradley, Conway, Fulton, Lee, Monroe, Newton, Pulaski, Scott, Searcy and Stone. Scott County has signed contracts for new equipment, the secretary of state's office said Monday.
State Desk on 02/25/2020