Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Porter County approves new election equipment

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By LILY REX

Porter County voters will cast their votes for municipal candidates on new equipment.

Newly elected Clerk Jessica Bailey received approval to purchase new equipment after making presentations and answering questions at three meetings on Tuesday.

Commissioners

First up were the Commissioners, who Tuesday morning approved the $1.8 million purchase contract with Election Systems & Software, pending approval by the Election Board and pending the appropriation of funds by the County Council.

They split voted 2-1 with Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, dissenting on the grounds that the County should be sure its personnel and training issues are in order first before introducing new equipment to the mix.

Biggs said though he thinks Bailey is very capable, he would like to see how the election goes with the same equipment and process it had last year under her new management.

Biggs also said the fact that he has heard nothing from the Election Board about what corrective action could be taken and what exactly failed in November disquiets him.

“I don’t think investing $1 million into the process down there is going to fix what caused it. I think it was human error that caused the catastrophic failure that evening,” said Biggs. “I think it would be healthy for the entire process if we went through one election cycle with what we have today.”

Commissioners Laura Blaney, D-South, and Jeff Good, R-Center, disagreed on the grounds that it makes more sense to rollout new equipment during a municipal election rather than the 2020 presidential cycle and that the equipment the County currently uses is out of dateÑit’s been in use for about 18 years.

Election Board

That afternoon, Bailey met with the Election Board to finalize approval of the contract. They voted unanimously to approve.

The new equipment Porter County is getting includes the debated electronic poll books and new touch screen voting machines, which make the process easier for voters with disabilities. Included in the purchase is also a high-speed ballot counter that will enable the counting of absentee ballots at a central location. If a proposed bill in the Indiana Legislature reforming Porter County’s elections laws passes, that piece of equipment will be essential because a central tally for absentee votes will be mandatory.

Before the vote, Board President J.J. Stankiewicz asked about problems with e-poll books in Johnson County, to which Jeremy Burton, Indiana Manager with ES&S, responded those problems were an isolated incident after Johnson County used their epoll books for seven years without a hitch. Johnson County’s issue was a problem with an internet server, Burton said, and the issue was exacerbated by the fact that they are a vote center county.

Stankiewicz also addressed an avoidable human error in the 2018 general: accessibility. Stankiewicz said he wasn’t sure each polling place was checked for ADA compliance in-person last year. Stankiewicz said a former elected official who now has a disability, Jack Jent, has volunteered to go to the locations and share his experience with the Board.

Board member David Bengs agreed Jent’s input will be valuable.

Stankiewicz had one more proposal. “We should reserve the end of each meeting, perhaps limited to 5 minutes, for public comments concerns and complaints so the meetings aren’t a one way, top down discussion from us.”

The Board voted to enact a five to 10-minute public comment period at the end of each meeting.

The Board also promised to hold more regular meetings. Bailey said the hope is to meet every third Thursday of the month at 3:30 p.m., as long as a room is available at the Administration Center.

County Council

Tuesday night, the County Council convened an emergency meeting to approve an additional appropriation of $444,011.76 to fund the down payment on the equipment so it can be delivered in time for Bailey to rollout staff training and begin planning poll worker training on the new machines.

Burton said the equipment can be delivered, “as soon as the Clerk is ready to receive it.”

Bengs said Horizon Bank offered a better interest rate than ES&S at 3.69 percent for seven years. The annual payments after putting money down will be about $228,000, according to County Auditor Vicki Urbanik. There is no penalty for early payment or prepayment. The first payment isn’t due until this time next year.

Urbanik estimated the total cost of interest over the seven-year term would be about $212,000.

Council member Bob Poparad, R-1st, suggested the County should use cash for the purchase to avoid paying the interest.

Council President Dan Whitten, D-At-large, said Poparad made a good point, especially since the County has enough cash in reserve outside of interest-bearing accounts.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, agreed that could be a good option, and said the Council should have a serious conversation about paying early during budget time later this year.

There are long-term cost savings with the new machines, Bailey said. Maintenance on the old system was $140,000 a year. The maintenance agreement for the new system drops to $89,950 annually. Bailey also noted the County will save on the cost of ballots. Under the paper ballot system, a unique ballot has to be printed for every registered voter in the County. More than half of those ballots often went to waste depending on turnout. The new machines print ballots on demand, and blank ballots can be stored and reused for five years.

The new equipment will be stored in two secure, climate-controlled rooms on the lower level of the Administration Building, according to Bailey.

Poparad asked for Bailey’s plans on poll worker training. Bailey said ES&S will help with training, and each and every poll worker will be retrained, regardless of experience level. Bailey also warned the Council she will have another monetary request.

“We will be asking that you pay the poll workers to be trained,” Bailey said. “Their time is worth money, and it’s a hot commodity item.”

Bailey said trainings will be in-person and poll workers will have options for where and when to attend. “We’re going to have it at a variety of times and a variety of locations. Information will be by PowerPoint so it will be the same information every time.”

Bailey said she has already started reaching out to schools and past poll workers. She plans to contact every past poll worker and is working on ways to get information about the new machines online and easily accessible on Porter County’s website and social media pages.

“I think that all of our problems will not be solved just by getting new equipment, as with anything, and I don’t feel as if our old equipment really failed, but it has served us well,” said Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At-large. “This has been given a lot of thought. We do have the money in reserve, and I think we’re moving ahead in a very cautious manner.”

Whitten repeated that buying the new equipment isn’t a band aid solution for last year’s election fiasco where 13 polling places opened late and results were delayed until Nov. 9.

“This is not a purchase that is borne of a bad election, though it certainly did bring it to the forefront of the conversation.”

The Council and the Commissioners heard an almost identical proposal for purchasing this same equipment in February last year. Both bodies rejected the proposal then because it was tied to a plan to cut polling locations in half just three months ahead of the mid-term primary.

Whitten said the purchase brings Porter County in line with its own quality standards. “It’s one thing to say we’re the most solvent county in the state of Indiana, which we are, but we’re woefully behind on technology, and those things don’t mesh well.”

Bailey agreed to provide updates on the election process at every Council meeting going forward.

“If you hit any stumbling blocks, we want know what those are the minute you hit them,” Whitten said.

 

 

Posted 1/31/2019

 
 
 
 

 

 

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