Sarasota County voters to use new machines during 2016 elections

Although Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent had hoped to hold off until 2017 to replace nine-year-old equipment, maintenance issues necessitate action now, she tells the News Leader

Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent. News Leader archive photo
Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent. News Leader archive photo

This week, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent and her staff began finalizing details for the county’s purchase of new voting equipment that will be in place for the 2016 elections, Dent told The Sarasota News Leader.

Although she warned the County Commission in June 2014 that the system purchased in 2007 might have to be replaced in 2016, Elections Office Administrative Assistant and Finance Officer Cathy Fowler told the commission this June it appeared the transaction could be delayed until 2017.

During a Sept. 30 telephone interview with the News Leader, Dent said the vendor for the current equipment reached the point where it was unable to make adequate repairs.

“We did not want to risk [problems in] an important election year like 2016,” Dent said, referencing past problems in the county and in Florida that led to national headlines.

The final 2000 presidential election count had to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court after votes were questioned in several Florida counties. Then, in 2006, Democratic Congressional candidate Christine Jennings alleged that malfunctioning voting equipment played a role in her defeat by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key. His margin over Jennings was 369 votes out of the almost 240,000 ballots cast. However, Jennings pointed out that more than 18,000 voters — about 15 percent of those who went to the polls — did not vote in the congressional race.

“Sarasota and Florida — we didn’t want to run any risks,” Dent told the News Leader on Sept. 30.

Her office received the proposal on Sept. 28, she said, after which her staff and IT personnel reviewed it. On Sept. 30, she continued, she and Ron Turner, her chief of staff, were among those who participated in a conference call with the vendor. “I think we’re good,” she added.

It appears the county will be able to purchase the new equipment at a cost between $1.6 million and $1.7 million, Dent continued, “which is much less than we originally anticipated.”

She added that the price “also gives us everything that we are going to need,” including “the peripherals” that sometimes do not seem necessary until after new equipment is in place.

In June, Fowler estimated the expense of the new machines between $3 million and $4 million.

The current equipment was purchased in 2007 for about $3.5 million, Turner, told the News Leader in June 2014. When Dent made her Fiscal Year 2015 budget presentation on June 25, 2014, she explained to the County Commission that representatives of Dominion Voting, from which the county bought the current equipment, had said the shelf life was expected to be four-and-a-half years. “They have us over a barrel if they end up not supporting what we have,” she added during that workshop.

On Sept. 21 of this year, the day before the County Commission held its second, required public hearing on the FY 2016 budget, County Administrator Tom Harmer informed the board that Dent’s office had reported the need to expedite the purchase of the new equipment. He added that the cost at that point was estimated at about $2 million. County staff probably would pursue “a commercial borrow” of the funds, he said, with the loan term pegged to the “functional life of the equipment.”

After she and her staff complete their negotiations with the new vendor, Dent told the News Leader this week, the proposal will go before the County Commission for approval. “I’m just the custodian” of the equipment, she pointed out; the county handles the purchasing and is the actual owner.

Because of the ongoing negotiations, she declined to identify the company.

Dent anticipated the item to be put on a County Commission agenda “toward the end of October.” County staff and the Office of the County Attorney will need to review the contract before it is ready for a board vote, she noted.

“I said I would never in my tenure implement another voting system,” Dent told the News Leader. “Never say, ‘Never.’”

Dent’s office’s website says she first was elected supervisor of elections on Nov. 7, 2000.

The Supervisor of Elections website shows the total voter counts as of mid-afternoon on Sept. 30. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The Supervisor of Elections website shows the total voter counts as of mid-afternoon on Sept. 30. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Other budget matters

During her appearance this June before the County Commission, Fowler — who was standing in for Dent and Turner — also pointed out that the FY 2016 budget for the Supervisors of Elections Office was on track with the one approved for FY 2012, the last year a presidential election was held. The cost of ballots always goes up, she noted, and postage expenses will be higher this time.

“We have seen, since 2012, absentee ballots increasing,” she told the commissioners.

Additionally, Dent plans to replace about 10 percent of the standalone voting booths in the next fiscal year, Fowler said. “We have about 1,500 of them,” Fowler noted; Dent’s plan is to undertake the replacements incrementally.

According to a chart provided to the County Commission for its Aug. 21 budget workshop, Dent’s budget will increase 18.9 percent, from $3,843,913 in FY 2015 to $4,570,040 in FY 2016.

Along with the additional expenses anticipated for the presidential election, Harmer noted, Dent had requested an extra $260,000 for costs associated with state redistricting and a special election for the City of Venice.

A lawsuit over the Florida Legislature’s 2012 maps for congressional and state Senate districts is ongoing, with new congressional maps to be approved by Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis and forwarded to the Florida Supreme Court in October. The Legislature has scheduled a special session beginning Oct. 19 to redraw the Senate districts.