Arkansas voters to see modern upgrades in voting booth

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 402 views 

Hanging chads will mostly be a thing of the past when most Arkansans enter the voting booth and find touchscreens and innovative software mostly associated with smartphones, tablets, self-driving cars and other smart technologies.

According to state election officials, most of Arkansas’ 75 counties will roll out new voting equipment when early voting began Monday (Oct. 22) that was funded by federal election security grants handed out to all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories over the past six months.

Those funds, known as Help America Vote Act (HAVA), were a part of the $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations package signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March to avert a government shutdown. The 2018 HAVA election security package included $380 million in grants, made available to states to improve the administration of elections for federal office, including to enhance technology and make certain election security improvements.

U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, who voted for the omnibus budget deal, told Talk Business & Politics he supported the bipartisan legislation to approved HAVA funding for the first time since 2010 because it was important to upgrade voting equipment nationwide.

“It is my understanding that it was money to look for security flaws and protect our elections,” said Hill, who is up for election against in the 2nd District against Democrat opponent Clarke Tucker.

Altogether, HAVA funds in Arkansas have been used to purchase elections equipment and software for 54 counties across the state, said Chris Powell, spokesman for Secretary of State’s office. Of that list, Union County in southern Arkansas is the one that will not use the new equipment for the upcoming elections because local officials were unable to complete upgrades within the state’s necessary timeline.

Like many election officials across the U.S., Arkansas is working with  Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software (ES&S) to upgrade hundreds of voting machines statewide. ES&S, which lays claim to being the world’s largest elections-only equipment and software operator, widely markets its trademarked ExpressVote digital system, which includes touchscreen machines, tabulators, electronic poll books, and updated software.

Powell boasted that county election officials are getting the latest election technology, which is also able to combine paper-based voting with touchscreen technology, along with modern encryption and other software innovations. The ES&S tabulators, called DS200, can also digitally scan votes and transmit that information into an election management system, he said.

“We consider this an election security upgrade as counties have been using equipment that was purchased over a decade ago and have been experiencing difficulties in maintaining them,” said Powell. “It will definitely be a step up for both voters and election workers. The new system will save both time and money during the process.”’

A detailed breakdown of HAVA and others funds provided to Talk Business & Politics by Arkansas Secretary of State officials shows a total of nearly $22.9 million is being spent in the 54 counties that will debut new election and voting equipment over the next two weeks. That total includes HAVA funds, outlays from the Secretary of State’s fiscal budget, as well as monies county election officials have expended on their own.

For example, at $2.82 million, Benton County has the highest budget to upgrade its election equipment for its 154,402 registered voters. However, the state’s second-largest county is one of only three counties in the state funding their election equipment upgrades solely from their own budgets.

Ashley County, which has only 12,626 registered voters, is spending $476,303 from its budget to upgrade election systems in the Delta region. White County, home to Searcy, is the other 100% county that is fully funding its equipment and software upgrades. That county’s $1,115,757 budget will modernize voting booths for some 43,335 registered voters.

Washington County, which has 129,750 registered, is receiving the next largest share of election security funds for new equipment at nearly $1.76 million. As one of six counties that is part of the Secretary of State’s Pilot B program, the state’s third largest county is getting nearly $1.3 million from the state to test the new electronic voting systems.

Sebastian County, which is one of the original participant’s in the Secretary of State’s Pilot A program, has a budget of nearly $1.5 million to prepare its 70,172 registered voters for its mid-term election upgrades. Nearly $1.1 million is funded through the state’s 2018 election appropriations, with the remaining total of $397,000 expensed through the county’s budget.

In Northeast Arkansas’ largest county, Craighead County election officials will get the largest share of funds to secure the ballot box for 55,419 registered voters. The county that is home to Jonesboro and the Arkansas State University flagship college will receive $748,324, which is split evenly between state and county funds.

In Central Arkansas, Faulkner County election officials have also received an even split of $1,081,952 in state and county funds to upgrade voting equipment for 73,353 citizens on the voting rolls. Pulaski County, the state’ largest population with 243,890 registered voters, is among the 21 counties that will go into the midterm elections with old equipment.

Altogether, 1,208,937 registered voters, or 68.91% of the 1,754,393 registered electorates on the book, will test new equipment under one of the state’s pilot programs or by other means when early voting begins.

Nationally, California, Texas and New York, the three states with the most voters, received the largest cut from the federal HAVA funds at $36.3 million, $24.4 million and $20.5 million, respectively. Florida and Pennsylvania, the other two states with the most electoral votes, received grants of $20.1 million and $14.1 million to enhance those states’ voting technology and make certain election security improvements.

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