The Phelps County commissioners are looking to purchase new voting machines for the 2018 elections. Elkins-Swyers Company from Springfield were in town last week to demonstrate their newest model. Phelps County Clerk Pam Grow says they don't come cheap.

The Phelps County commissioners are looking to purchase new voting machines for the 2018 elections. Elkins-Swyers Company from Springfield were in town last week to demonstrate their newest model. The last voting machines were purchased in 2005. Elkins-Swyers, one of three companies bidding on the contract won the last bid for these machines at that time. Phelps County Clerk Pam Grow said the county paid a total of $253,500 for the voting machines: $136,500 for Sequoia Insight Optical Scanners ($5,250 each for 26 machines), and $117,000 for touch-screen ADA (American Disabilities Act)-compliant voting machines ($4,500 each for 26).

Grow said at that time, the county was reimbursed $258,992 for equipment across 2005 and 2006, including what she interprets as a buy-out of punch card equipment, as well as about $14,000 for second-chance voting.
“That (hardbound budget book) says $275,992, give or take a few thousand,” she said. She qualifies this number because, “if it’s pre-January 2013, I have little access to financials from the old accounting system.”
She said the reimbursement was “HAVA” (“Help America Vote Act”) grant money.
“I do not intend to seek federal money to purchase the equipment that will be the property of our county,” she emphasized. “It is not the role of state or federal government to supply funds for this.”
Noting that the purchase will be expensive, Grow has no cost estimate for voting machine replacement at the present time.

Having been awarded the last voting machine contract, Cory Nibert, vice president of Elkins-Swyers, emphasized the company’s history, racking up 40 years of business with Phelps County as not only an elections vendor, but also in a printshop capacity.  

"We still have actual parts and maintenance support for the current machines, but the tabulation where you accumulate and print your results rely on Microsoft Windows XP (now unsupported by Microsoft), so if it does crash, there's no way to replace it," said Nibert. "Then you'll have to hand-tally all the tapes that come in which will add to a delay, making it a long night."

The current voting machine ballots are tabulated by digital scanning. Nibert said that in all the primary and federal elections, the county also needs an ADA-compliant voting option, such as touch-screens with hand controller (with braille translation) and audio or sip-and-puff technology, for those persons that are upper-body immobile.

Nibert noted that computers typically last six years and the optical scanning machines are currently 12 years-old. The company presented a voting machine option from Dominion Voting Systems Corporation, based in Toronto, Canada. According to Wikipedia,  Dominion voting machines are used in 600 jurisdictions in 22 states of the United States, and 80,000 Dominion ImageCast Precinct Optical Scan Tabulators are in use in other countries. Nibert explained this particular model is manufactured in Texas and the ballot boxes in California and that there are 22 counties in the state currently using the new system.

Once a ballot is marked by the voter and fed into the machine, the ballot is scanned digitally, called an "image-cast." "We have a technology called “auto-mark”—you can download all the images and verify that the machine was tabulated correctly because it prints an audit of how it read the ballot," explained Nibert.
"This is important, because if you have a disgruntled candidate, you can prove from those images that the tabulator was tabulating the ballots correctly."

What about hacking a voting machine? Results are stored only on the machine tape and the ballot. "You cannot have election results stored on a machine,"said Nibert. "They have to be on an external drive. You can't have the machines connected to the internet—our system is not. With all the checks and balances that Pam's office does, pre-testing and post-testing to make sure the results match each other—never say never—but, I don't know how you'd hack it."

Now, the Phelps County optical scanning machines are stored and maintained in Springfield by Elkins-Swyers. Prior to each election, new paper rolls are installed and each machine is tested for tabulation accuracy before they are delivered. County Clerk Pam Grow and her elections team also conduct pre-testing before each election, once the machines are delivered and set up.

Nibert said the voting process hasn't changed."They're (voters) still getting a paper ballot, filling it out and feeding it in."

While that might be true, Pam Grow says the bidding process for optical scanning machines is one of comparing apples to oranges to grapes. The other two vendors bidding with the county are ES&S, Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb. and Henry M. Adkins and Sons, of Clinton, Mo.