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Lawmakers drain Louisiana voting machine replacement fund

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana never had sizable sums set aside to buy the thousands of new voting machines it needs. But the state has even less now, after the small amount socked away for the expense was shifted elsewhere in an election-year legislative scramble to boost spending on education, public safety and health care.

Lawmakers previously had put $2 million in state financing into a voting technology fund, as a down payment on a machine replacement expected to cost tens of millions of dollars. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin had hoped millions more would be added this year.

Instead, lawmakers reshuffled the money to help pay for Ardoin’s office operations as they built the $30 billion state operating budget that starts July 1. That will leave lawmakers in the new term beginning in 2020 to find dollars to pay for machines.

“I did warn them. I said, ‘The bill is coming. The bill is coming.’ It was a hugely missed opportunity,” said Ardoin, Louisiana’s chief elections officer.

A contract for the new voting machines hasn’t been settled, and the secretary of state’s office hasn’t begun seeking vendors for the work, after a previous solicitation effort was derailed by allegations of improper bid handling.

The decision to spend the dollars in the voting technology fund happened in the Senate Finance Committee and then was approved by the full House and Senate. Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur said senators didn’t see a need to stockpile money for an expense that’s not yet set.

Ardoin won’t be buying new machines this year, LaFleur said, and he has $5.8 million in federal money for voting machines whenever his agency enters into a contract. LaFleur said lawmakers will pay for the remaining expense when there’s a contract to finance.

“Our plan was, ‘You don’t need to save any money. When you’re ready to pull the trigger, we’ll put it in your budget and you’ll have the money.’ That was the sentiment of the committee,” LaFleur said. “When he’s ready to buy the machines, I feel like there won’t be a problem in paying for them.”

The secretary of state’s office started searching for a voting machine contractor in March 2018, soliciting bids to replace 10,000 Election Day and early-voting machines bought in 2005 with smaller devices that have improved technology and provide a paper record of votes.

But a multimillion-dollar contract award was scrapped months later. The state’s chief procurement officer said the secretary of state’s office didn’t follow legal requirements in choosing the winning vendor.

Ardoin’s office is working on a new bid solicitation, with an eye toward releasing it in August. Ardoin said he is working closely with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, which oversees the procurement office, “because I do not want to repeat any of the mistakes from the last time.”

The Edwards administration has said it supports replacing the voting machines.

For now, Ardoin said his office will spend $2 million renting temporary early voting machines for the October and November elections, when Louisiana’s statewide and legislative positions are on the ballot. He said he’ll continue the rental through the 2020 presidential election cycle. The office will continue using spare parts to make sure the decade-old Election Day voting machines are running properly.

Ardoin said any contract for voting machine replacement — whether leasing or buying new machines — will be phased in over three to five years, so the expense won’t be entirely upfront. But he warned a “sizable price tag is coming.”

“No one’s heeding the warning,” Ardoin said. “They keep kicking the can down the road.”

Associated Press

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