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Mahoning County's Voting Machine Switch and the Growing Buyer's Market in Voting Technology

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[Image courtesy of The Mahoning County Communicator]

Mahoning County, OH (Youngstown) recently announced that it will be switching to optical scan voting machines for the November 2012 general election. The decision means County voters will no longer rely on touchscreen machines as the primary method of casting ballots, as they have since they were purchased in 2002.

The Mahoning story is a perfect example how the market for voting technology has changed in the years since passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), enacted by Congress in 2002 in response to the controversial 2000 Presidential election.

HAVA authorized almost $4 billion in federal funds for election improvements at the state and local level - much of which were earmarked for voting machine upgrades. Those funds - and the various mandates included in HAVA - made election offices motivated buyers and created a huge sellers' market as vendors rushed to help states and localities spend their newfound dollars. In this environment Mahoning County's $2.95 million purchase of 1100 touchscreen machines was typical.

After concerns about touchscreen machines - triggered, in part, by a controversial fundraising letter written by one company's CEO - led to a call for such machines to produce a verifiable paper trail, many states imposed such requirements. Such a law in Ohio meant Mahoning spent over $864,000 to retrofit their machines in 2006.

Over time, however, many localities struggled with their machines' usability - and Mahoning was no exception, as it had numerous issues with machine calibration, startup and shutdown in 2004. The machines often also proved to be less durable than expected; by 2011 Mahoning found that 200 of its original 1100 machines were no longer working.

Moreover, the readily-available money in 2002 to purchase the machines is long gone; Congress never fully funded HAVA and state and local funds that might have filled the gap evaporated in the wake of the national economic downturn.

This state of affairs - aging technology combined with tight to nonexistent fiscal resources - has changed voting technology into a buyer's market. Faced with spending money they don't have on machines they didn't think they'd need, states and localities are kicking the tires and demanding a level of cost-effectiveness and performance they never would have considered a decade ago.

Mahoning's approach - a switch to optical-scan machines combined with an examination of a lease vs. a purchase - is another perfect example of this buyer's market trend. The response to the switch (namely, concern that paper ballots are susceptible to fraud) is also typical, but will likely become yet another part of the cost-benefit analysis that election offices face. Another decision buyers will face is whether to continue with the existing vendor (if it still exists); Mahoning is keeping its vendor - a decision that may have as much to do with using sunk costs as negotiating power as it does satisfaction with performance to date.

Another interesting piece (pun intended) of the changes in voting technology is the emergence of a secondary market for used voting machine parts. As the article notes, quoting Mahoning Deputy Director Joyce Kale Pesta:

The county may be able to sell some parts of the electronic touch-screen machines, including the legs that hold them up and some of the devices used to count votes, [she] said. She doesn't know how much money could be recouped through the sale of parts.

All across the country, state and local election offices are experiencing the same issues and facing the same kind of decisions that Mahoning is dealing with now. What is clear, however, is that the power in the voting technology market relationship has changed; vendors in the dwindling market are extremely motivated sellers and, with the right approach, buyers like Mahoning may be able to drive a hard and favorable bargain.

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