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Commissioners consider $1M voting machines

After just over a year of research, planning and waiting on the state, the Lycoming County commissioners will consider approving the purchase of around 180 new voting machines for $1,007,896 from Clear Ballot Thursday morning pending the solicitor’s review.

The purchase comes from a state mandate requiring all counties to replace their machines with state-approved systems that leave a paper trail. It is unknown how much, if any, financial aid the counties will get for this purchase, said Forrest Lehman, director of voter services.

“I’m pleased with the contract,” Lehman said. “I believe this is the best fit for our county and I hope that the voters will agree.”

If the contract is signed this week, Lehman hopes to have the system in place for the November election, giving his office and voters all a chance to use the machines prior to the presidential primary next spring.

With the new machines, voters will cast their votes via paper ballots which then will be scanned and counted electronically.

“What these systems get us is a paper record that cannot be electronically manipulated,” Lehman said. “If there was ever any doubt about the election, the outcome, the technology, you always have the paper that you can go back to. It is always there, existing independently of the software, the hardware.”

Half of those 180 machines will be touch-screen, for voters who may not be able to use a paper ballot. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that every precinct have one touch-screen machine, Lehman said.

The commissioners asked why Lehman recommends a contract with Clear Ballot when other counties are choosing a company with competitive pricing.

“The up-front cost was a little less, but the annual fees were about $70,000 with an escalator built in,” he said of the other company in question. “That adds up over time and has to be part of your overall calculations.”

Clear Ballot charges a licensing fee up front, not annually, he said. The $1 million proposed cost encompasses the 180 machines, software and a printer to be used in voter services for absentee ballots, and five years of maintenance.

Not only does paying for so many years of maintenance up front make the county eligible for a discount, doing so also may have another benefit.

“In the event that the state comes through with any assistance for counties, we believe, if we can front-load more of the cost, we may have the potential to recoup that as part of the state funding assistance,” Lehman said. “If we paid only $800,000 up front for the equipment, we might get half paid back by the state. If we’re paying this million up front that includes these annual costs, we might get some of that paid back, too.”

Clear Ballot is the only company that gives the county the option of printing ballots in-house, which Lehman said his office is looking into for potential cost savings. Further, its machines can be transported in the poll workers’ vehicles so the county will not have to “run a delivery service” for election days, he added.

“I priced every system out over 10 years. They came within about $100,000 of each other — Clear Ballot came in a few hundred thousand less. There was a substantial difference,” Lehman said. “That’s not the only reason I support this system. Cost is not the only factor, because we have to think about what is the best fit for our voters, for our poll workers … there are a lot of variables that I reviewed. It was a happy coincidence that the cost came out in our favor.”

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