[Image courtesy of thegreatilluminator]
The St. Charles, MO County Executive recently vetoed a $1.2 million contract for new voting machines requested by the elections director and approved by the county council.
Unlike his counterparts in some other county governments, he isn't unhappy with the performance of the election director. Nor does he appear to have any issue with the new voting machines being sought or the company providing them under the contract.
Rather, he is concerned that the County only got one bid for the new machines, saying "[a]nytime we have $1.2 million in expenditures and only one bid, I'm going to be very suspicious." Normally that would make sense, but here's the problem: only one vendor (the one who got the contract - the contract that got vetoed) is certified to do business in the State of Missouri.
As a result of the various layers of certification and testing required by the federal and state government - combined with the consolidation in the market as federal dollars for new equipment have dwindled - many states' only choice is to work with a single vendor or keep the old machines. To his credit, the County Executive understands this; he just doesn't like the outcome:
Apparently, the federal government and secretary of state certification requirements have created a situation where a single provider is available to bid. As a result, the competitive bid process, designed to guarantee the taxpayers do not overpay, did not provide the necessary competition.
This case is absolutely chock-full of fascinating issues like the cost/benefit of certification and testing programs and the interplay of federal and state requirements, but I think the biggest takeaway from this story is the near-total lack of transparency in the voting technology market.
The Executive's veto is essentially the result of an information failure; namely, whether the $1.2 million is a fair deal and in line with what other similar jurisdictions pay for similar technology. That's information that we can and should be able to collect and make available - and to the extent state laws, vendor contract language or even a lack of capacity create obstacles to that goal we need to overcome them. This would open up the market in a time when current laws and circumstances are threatening to close it.
Currently, St. Charles is basically waiting for the federal and state government to certify more voting machines so any bid will be truly competitive. A better, faster (and I'd be willing to be bet cheaper) way to achieve the same goals would be to give the County Executive and his counterparts across the nation better access to information about what it costs to buy, operate and maintain their voting equipment.