State finalizes $82M contract for new voting machines

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Secretary of State’s office finalized its contract to replace the state’s ailing voting machines with new equipment in time for the August 2018 primaries.

The Board of State Canvassers on Tuesday approved a plan the State Administrative Board previously authorized. It could grant vendors up to $82.1 million over the next 10 years to replace the state’s voting machines with new optical scanners expected to be up and running by August 2018.

The new machines still use paper ballots, so not much changes for voters in the polling booth, said state Elections Director Chris Thomas. But the new technology will make things easier for election workers by setting up a statewide repository showing results all in one place.

“The voters themselves are not gonna notice a whole lot,” Thomas said. “Just to have a statewide repository for all elections – it just doesn’t exist right now. It’s a big step forward. No question.”

The four-member board unanimously approved a contract with three vendors for the new machines, election-management software and long-term maintenance. Michigan is expected to cover about $40 million of the spending, while local communities will pay the difference. The amount could vary, depending on which of the vendors county clerks select.

By the time local clerks decide, the cost could end up being less than the projected $82.1 million maximum, said Secretary of State’s office spokesman Fred Woodhams.

“The new equipment offers voters all the speed and convenience of the latest ballot-scanning and election-night reporting technology while at the same time featuring a good, old-fashioned paper ballot that we can always go back and look at if we need to,” Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said in a statement previously.

Some local communities, including Detroit, could get new voting machines by the 2017 August primaries, Johnson’s office said. All equipment will be replaced by the 2018 primaries. Local governments would have to cover long-term maintenance costs.

The new contracts approved Tuesday are with Dominion Voting Systems of Toronto, Election Systems & Software of Nebraska and Hart InterCivic of Texas, which also offer election systems to other states. Johnson’s office said there have not been any problems with machines elsewhere in the country.

“I have not really heard of any problems, voter issues or I guess vulnerabilities,” said Sally Williams, director of election liaison division for the Secretary of State. The response was prompted by a question during the board meeting about that issue by State Canvasser Jeannette Bradshaw, one of two Democrats on the board.

Bradshaw said she was also was concerned about whether some locations in Michigan would have to obtain adapters or surge protectors to plug in machines if older buildings didn’t have grounded electricity outlets with three prongs. Williams said the machines come with surge protectors, so it shouldn’t be a concern.

Michigan’s current machines are from 2004 and 2005, and still run a Windows XP operating system, which Microsoft has not sold since 2008. Microsoft cut off support and security updates in 2014.

The new tabulators are digital machines that scan paper ballots and record the results.

Michigan started making plans to buy the new tabulators well before the November 2016 election and a partial recount in Michigan requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The recount was halted by state and federal judges, but exposed some voting irregularities in Detroit and a high rate of “unrecountable” precincts across Michigan.

Most recount issues were caused by human error, not because of the state’s old machines, Thomas said.

But he said the digital ballot-scanning technology should help reduce paper jams. They can also store ballot images electronically for review during post-election audits, but Thomas said it’s unclear if that feature will be used.

mgerstein@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @MikeGerstein