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New technology possibly on tap for Louisiana elections

by Associated Press

Louisiana election officials want to replace the 10,000 election machines with tablets.  Courtesy Photo

Louisiana election officials want to replace the 10,000 election machines with tablets. Courtesy Photo

BATON ROUGE — When Louisiana voters go to the polls to elect a governor in 2019 they will cast their ballots on iPads — if all goes as planned.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler says he’ll ask the incoming administration of Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards and the Legislature for money to roll out the new way of voting.

“Money is the big obstacle. But we don’t have a choice,” said Schedler, a Republican who also is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

The Advocate reports the idea was first broached in 2014 by a presidential commission. A few counties, such as Denver and Los Angeles, already are experimenting with it, but Louisiana could become the first state to adopt the new technology.

Schedler said his plan is to replace voting machines with tablet computers over the next three years, starting with the larger parishes around Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans.

The move is necessary because the state’s voting machines — about 10,000 of them — are about 15 years old and wearing out quickly, he said. The machines on which voters now cast their ballots are no longer made, and even if he could find replacements, the machines would cost about $5,200 each, he said.

“It is a drastic change. We’re going to take it slow, but this is the best way to go,” Schedler said.

The Legislature, in addition to filling a $1.8 billion hole in the budget, would need to find about $150 million to complete the process.

The alternative is shifting to more technologically advanced tablet computers, like the iPad, which cost about $300 each. Schedler estimates the shift will cost about $45 million spread over three years.

And there could be other savings, as well. Tablet computers can be stored in a locked filing cabinet between elections, instead of the 66 guarded warehouses now used, he said.

Schedler said he’s sensitive to security concerns, particularly in an era where hackers have been able to access all sorts of personal records from seemingly impenetrable databases.
But in this aspect, Schedler said, Louisiana’s unique “top-down” system of governing proves beneficial. Where most states handle elections on the county (parish) level, Louisiana’s system is centralized statewide in the Secretary of State’s Office.

That means the state buys the machinery, controls it and maintains it. The voting procedures and experiences in Caddo Parish are fairly similar to those in Jefferson or Tensas parishes. In other states, the machinery, security and practices differ from locality to locality.

Digital technology also would allow Louisiana to set up centers that would allow voters to cast ballots from out of town, rather than having to be in their home parish to vote just in traditional precincts. This would be a boon to college students, who have among the lowest voter participation rates, Schedler said.

Amber McReynolds, director of elections in Denver, said voters turned out being more comfortable with tablet computers because they were more familiar with the new technology. “Voters found it a lot more intuitive,” she said.

Schedler said he is a bit nervous about embarking on one that will revolutionize the way people are used to voting. But he’s confident this is the right way to go.

And one thing is clear: The current machines have to be replaced — and soon. “If we sit back and push the marble down the road, it will be a crisis,” Schedler said.

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