Just like old computers need to be replaced, Nebraska’s vote-counting equipment is becoming obsolete and will need to be replaced.
Secretary of State John Gale, who is retiring this year after 18 years in the office, has estimated that new equipment for all of the state’s 93 counties would cost about $12 million. Though he’s leaving the office in January, he wants to see funding secured so that some or all counties can replace aging voting machines in time for the 2020 election.
“It needs to be addressed in 2019 if anything’s going to be done to replace the election technology and election system for the 2020 election,” he said.
But Nebraska is again facing a tough budget year, and legislators will already need to find a way to fund the Medicaid expansion that voters approved this year. Legislators have said they don’t expect to have much, if any, money for new proposals.
“As far as any extra money for anything that isn’t in the budget today, it’s going to be extremely difficult,” said State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “There’s not a whole lot of extra, but obviously this is something that we need to think about and plan for and try to get it done.”
The Nebraska Information Technology Commission reviewed the proposal and said it should be a top priority.
Gale said his office and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ team will meet this week to discuss options, including buying the equipment over the course of several years, asking counties to pay a portion of the costs and using a lease-purchase agreement rather than buying it outright.
The Governor’s Office confirmed the meeting but did not say whether new election equipment would be a budget priority for the governor.
Eventually, the governor will propose a budget and the Legislature will make the final decision about what should be funded.
The equipment to be replaced are tabulation machines and machines to help those with disabilities vote.
“We were smart when we decided to stick with paper ballots, and right now that is the gold standard for elections in the United States,” Gale said.
It might, however, lead to quicker election night results as faster and more reliable machines count ballots.
Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said it’s too early to tell how much new equipment could change county operations. He and Gale both said the current equipment could make it through the 2020 election, but it’s clear that new equipment will be needed soon.
“A 12-year-old TV or a 12-year-old laptop is not going to last forever,” Kruse said. “And 12-year-old counting machines are not going to last forever.”
Kruse said Douglas County’s nine counting machines worked properly during this year’s midterm elections. But during the 2016 presidential general election, two machines were shut down on election night because of jamming issues.
Both a special legislative committee and the Secretary of State’s Office studied the issue of new voting machines in 2016 and concluded that the state needs to buy new equipment. But that proposal didn’t make it into that year’s budget.
“In order to prevent a future crisis, the Legislature should make annual appropriations to the Election Administration Fund to save up for the next election technology purchase in 10-15 years,” the legislative report said.
That report estimated a $25 million to $30 million price tag; Gale said his latest proposal includes fewer items.
He also said the state could save money through maintenance, because the warranty on the current machines has expired and the state spends about $900,000 a year on testing and maintenance.
Gale also said other decisions could affect the price tag — for example, if more Nebraska counties implement mail-only elections, the state could buy less equipment.
“Our goal is to make this smooth and user friendly and complaint free,” Gale said.
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