News | Price the Vote: Federal money for electronic voting runs out, but the meter on voting machines keeps on ticking. 

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In 2005, Utah plunked down $24 million from a federal grant on a new electronic voting system. The state bought the “kitchen sink” plan—voting machines for every county, a maintenance plan and a service agreement that has placed employees of voting-machine maker Premier Election Solutions in Utah for the past three years and dispatched about 100 of the company’s technicians to the polls each Election Day.

The contract with Premier will take Utah through this year’s presidential elections. At the end of 2009, the contract is up, as is the federal money that has so far paid for the plan. The cost of running the machines, however, won’t go away. In Utah, as in most of the country, electronic voting equipment was sold with service costs that go on forever. While Utah counties now own the voting machines, they rent the software, and the annual price of software licensing and maintenance agreements statewide adds up to about $1 million per year. After 2009, it is unclear who is going to cover those costs. Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah’s chief election official, plans to ask the Legislature next year for enough money to avoid passing the tab on to counties until at least 2015.

Wherever the money comes from, it will ultimately come from taxpayers. And some think it’s a rip-off. A new report from national voting-rights group VotersUnite criticizes voting-machine makers for allegedly soaking governments with ongoing costs and service agreements that have led election officials to become dependent on the companies to run elections.

Elections officials “are at the mercy of the vendors,” says Ellen Theisen, co-director of VotersUnite and author of the report. “Either pay the license fee or go get a whole new system and get taken to the cleaners by another vendor.”

She argues the new voting machines were beyond the expertise of most local election officials, forcing governments to purchase service agreements. Now, she says, many elections offices are so dependent on the vendors that they couldn’t run elections without the outside help.

Utah appears to be an exception. The state spent millions to provide Premier service to all voting precincts through 2009. But county clerks from Summit to Utah to Tooele told

City Weekly they haven’t had much use for the state’s prepaid voting-machine service contract for years, having trained their own information technology employees to do pre-vote machine testing and act as Election Day technical rovers. Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson says he uses Premier technicians only to double-check his employees’ work, but “has not fully utilized” the state service contract.

Nearly from the beginning of electronic voting, in 2006, Salt Lake County had its own employees trained as voting machines experts. Jason Yocom, chief deputy county clerk, says the county made a conscious decision not to rely on the voting-machine maker for service, partly because of the early controversy that swirled around the voting machines.

“We always wanted to be autonomous from the vendor,” he says. By doing in-house machine testing, “we can vouch for the accuracy of an election.”

Wasatch County Clerk Brent Titcomb, however, said he will miss the Premier service contract when it goes away. The county will continue to need help setting up its electronic ballot, at least for a few more elections, he says. But the process takes just a few minutes and is done over the phone, so it shouldn’t break the county’s bank.

Joe Demma, chief of staff to the lieutenant governor, defends Utah’s bells-and-whistles voting contract, noting that Utah hasn’t experienced the headline-grabbing electronic voting snafus that have plagued other states. The lieutenant governor negotiated volume discounts on both voting machines and service contracts, he says.

“I feel like we got the best bang for our buck,” says Demma. Now that counties are trained on the machines, the service agreement is no longer needed.

In its August report,

VotersUnite recommends election officials follow the example of many Utah county clerks by training their own people to run voting machines. Some election officials have shaved hundreds of thousands off voting-machine costs by not taking the extended maintenance agreements, the report says.

On the other hand, buying the extended warrantee might not be a bad idea. On Aug. 22, Premier Election Solutions reported that for the past 10 years, its software that creates final vote tallies has had “a critical programming error” that causes it to drop votes.

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More by Ted McDonough

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