Louisiana restarts process for selecting new voting system

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Voting machines are set up and ready for use at the Louisiana Voting Machine Warehouse at 8870 Chef Menteur Hwy. which will be an early voting location in New Orleans, La., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Louisiana edged forward Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, with its latest effort to update the state’s voting system, with a new commission that will help choose the technology with broader input than two prior failed efforts to replace thousands of old voting machines. (Max Becherer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana edged forward Wednesday with its latest effort to update the state’s voting system, with the convening of a new commission that will help choose the technology after receiving broader input than officials did during previous unsuccessful efforts to replace thousands of old voting machines.

Whatever voting system is chosen will have to produce an auditable paper record, unlike the current decades-old machines used. Lawmakers, mainly Republicans, enacted the new requirements for the shopping effort and created the Voting System Commission to make recommendations before the bid solicitation can begin.

The 13-member commission includes lawmakers, elections experts, a cybersecurity expert and others who will analyze the type of voting system that should be bought or leased. Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the state’s chief elections official, was chosen as chairman.

The panel is supposed to make its voting system recommendations by Jan. 31. After that, Ardoin’s office can begin its latest search for a new voting system through the public bid process. The last two attempts by the secretary of state’s office to replace the state’s 10,000 voting machines fell apart amid controversy about the bid solicitation.

A bill sponsored by Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt and approved by the majority-Republican Legislature created the commission and added new requirements for Louisiana’s next voting system, with new layers of legislative oversight, technical analysis and public comment. Hewitt said Wednesday that the panel will “give citizens, experts and legislators an equal voice” in helping to choose a “secure, paper-based voting system that gives voters the confidence” that their ballots are counted accurately.

The first meeting largely reviewed the current system used statewide by Ardoin’s office and the requirements for operating elections.

The commission can only recommend a voting system that has a paper trail that can be audited. That could involve ballot-marking digital machines that print out a paper receipt, paper ballots that are scanned into a digital system or some other machine-based method that produces a paper record. Currently, the only paper trail that exists in Louisiana’s elections involves absentee ballots.

Ardoin’s office said the agency will have increased costs for paper and storage and will need lawmakers to consider creating a larger gap between primary and runoff elections to allow for the auditing.

The legislation also requires that Louisiana’s next voting system can’t connect to the internet, already the practice today in the secretary of state’s office.

Louisiana didn’t have any controversy with its recent elections, including the 2020 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump won Louisiana, and Ardoin has fiercely defended Louisiana’s voting system as secure.

Still, efforts to replace the old voting machines have drawn concerns from some Republicans who repeated baseless allegations of widespread fraud in other states and who said they are worried a new Louisiana voting system could be subject to hacking.

Several people who testified before the commission Wednesday said they didn’t want the state to get digital ballot-marking devices, suggesting those could be unsafe. They urged the state to buy hand-marked paper ballots that are then scanned. Some pushed the state to use more than one voting system vendor.

Ardoin shelved the last voting machine replacement attempt in March after facing widespread complaints from election technology firms, Hewitt and other Republicans about how the search was handled. A previous 2018 search and contract award was voided amid allegations of bid rigging.

While waiting to start a new voting system search, Ardoin’s office continues to pay its current vendor Dominion Voting Systems for maintenance on the old Election Day machines and for leasing early voting machines.

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