County moving ahead on purchase of new voting machines

A letter from commission Chair Carolyn Mason to the Florida Division of Elections will explain that only one vendor certified by the state has equipment the county can use

Kathy Dent mugshot from 2012 Veterans Parade Norm
Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent. File photo

With a unanimous vote on its Nov. 10 Consent Agenda, the Sarasota County Commission set in motion a process to purchase new voting machines in advance of the 2016 Presidential Election.

Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent told The Sarasota News Leader this fall that because of maintenance issues involving the current equipment, she felt the only way to ensure voting would not be problematic in 2016 was to obtain new equipment.

In a Nov. 10 letter to Maria Matthews, director of the Florida Division of Elections, Dent refers to “an aging voting system that is at risk of failure with continued handling and use,” adding that relying on the equipment “through the 2016 election cycle is no longer an option.”

Further, only one state-certified vendor has equipment that is compatible with the AutoMARK device the Supervisor of Elections Office provides to make it easier for disabled people to mark ballots, according to a memo from Dent to the County Commission.

The Florida Statutes require that the purchase of voting equipment at a cost of more than $35,000 be undertaken through the use of sealed bids or a competitive proposal process comprising at least two bidders, the memo points out, “unless the governing body (Board of County Commissioners) finds that there is but a single source from which suitable equipment may be obtained.” Therefore, after county Procurement Official Ted Coyman Jr. reviewed the matter, he determined the county could pursue a single-source purchase process, the memo explains.

During its Nov. 17 meeting, the County Commission is scheduled to vote on a contract with Election Systems & Software (ES&S), a memo from Dent notes. The cost of the equipment, installation, training and support during elections is estimated at $1,615,811.10, the memo adds. The agreement will include a warranty through Dec. 31, 2016, the memo says. Following the end of that warranty period, the memo continues, annual software and hardware maintenance will cost about $189,295, which will be paid out of the budget for the Supervisor of Elections Office.

The proposed contract also includes trading in the current equipment, the memo says.

The Supervisor of Elections provided the County Commission a detailed breakdown regarding the cost of new voting machines. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The Supervisor of Elections provided the County Commission a detailed breakdown regarding the cost of new voting machines. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With its vote this week, the County Commission authorized its chair, Carolyn Mason, to send a letter to the Florida Division of Elections providing notification that the board is pursuing a single-source process to purchase the machines. State law necessitates such an assertion from the county under the circumstances Dent outlined in her memo to the board.

Two vendors — Dominion Voting Systems Inc. and ES&S — “have voting tabulation systems certified by the Florida Division of Elections,” Dent wrote in the memo. However, the she continued, only ES&S has equipment that is certified to be used with the AutoMARK device.

The current machines were purchased in 2007 from Diebold Election Systems; that firm since was acquired by Dominion Voting Systems Inc. Although the Dominion system works with the AutoMARK device — “when [the machines are] operating correctly,” the memo notes — Dominion is unable to offer new equipment that is both certified by the state and capable of working with the device.

Therefore, the memo says, Dent proposes the county purchase the same type of ES&S system Manatee County recently bought; it also is used in many other Florida counties similar in size to Sarasota County.