LINCOLN — If all goes well during the next six months, Nebraska counties will be tallying up the 2020 election results with new equipment.

State election officials are in the process of acquiring new ballot-counting machines for all 93 Nebraska counties. They also are getting new devices for every polling place that voters with disabilities can use to mark ballots.

Secretary of State Bob Evnen called the purchases a step toward ensuring that Nebraska elections remain “secure, reliable and accurate.”

“Nebraska’s eligible voters can be confident that their ballots will continue to be cast securely and counted accurately,” he said.

Both types of machines will replace equipment that has come to the end of its life cycle. The machines in use now were purchased in 2005 with federal Help America Vote Act funds and were expected to last about 15 years.

“The current machines give reliable results, but it takes a lot of effort to keep them running and keep them maintained,” Evnen said.

John Cartier of Civic Nebraska, a Lincoln-based group advocating for voting rights, applauded the purchases. He said the new equipment represents “a significant victory for voters in Nebraska” and will be a critical part of keeping elections “secure, accessible and fair.”

The new ballot-counting machines should save both time and money, Evnen said.

Voting still will be done using paper ballots. One key benefit of the new machines is that they will accept ballots that have been folded. The change means election officials will be able to save on postage when sending out early ballots.

The new machines will add a new layer of security and will have upgraded technology. As with the current equipment, the new machines will not be connected to the Internet.

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Evnen said the new ballot-marking devices will be about one-quarter the size and weight of current machines, which are “very large, very heavy, very bulky and also very finicky.” He said the new machines should be easier for voters to use and poll workers to transport.

Ballot-marking devices allow people with visual handicaps or physical disabilities to cast ballots independently.

State lawmakers earmarked $11.3 million in the current state budget to buy the new equipment, with $6.3 million going for the ballot-counting machines.

State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, the chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said finding that kind of money is always difficult. But he said state lawmakers made it a priority because of the importance of having secure and accurate elections.

A special legislative committee and the Secretary of State’s Office studied the need for new voting equipment in 2016, but no money was put into the budget until the need to replace current machines became more pressing.

Officials now are in the process of negotiating a contract with the Omaha-based Election Systems and Software, the nation’s top voting machine maker. The Nebraska contract will be based on a competitive bidding process already completed by Minnesota.

Evnen said the goal is to have the machines in place and county election officials trained in time for the May 12 primary.

Meanwhile, his office and state lawmakers are looking ahead to the time when the new equipment has to be replaced. Brewer’s committee held an interim study hearing last month to start looking for ways to build up a replacement fund over time, rather than scrambling for a large amount at once.

Evnen said he doesn’t know what the life-span of the new equipment may be.

“I expect this equipment to last a good, long time,” he said.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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