Voting machine service contracts canceled
Carlsbad Current-Argus. April 1, 2009. By Barry Massey, Associated Press Writer.
SANTA FE — With New Mexico facing a big election year in 2010, questions remain over who will pay for maintenance and upgrades of the state's paper ballot voting system to have machines ready for balloting.
The Legislature failed to resolve a dispute over the maintenance and ownership of voting equipment, and the counties and the state will soon have no financial protection if machines need repairs or upgrades.
The secretary of state's office is canceling software and firmware maintenance and support agreements with the sole vendor of the voting equipment, Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, known as ES&S, because lawmakers didn't provide money to continue them.
"It really puts us in a very, very bad situation," Sheryl Nichols, chief deputy clerk in Los Alamos County and president of a county clerks group affiliated with the New Mexico Association of Counties, said Wednesday.
If vote tabulating equipment malfunctions in future elections, she warned, county officials might be forced to hand tally ballots — a time-consuming process.
"Elections wouldn't crash and burn. We wouldn't be sitting there doing nothing, but you wouldn't get results for a long time if we had to hand tally ballots from alternate and early polling locations," said Nichols.
There are statewide primary and general elections in 2010. However, some local governments have elections this year, such as Albuquerque's mayoral election in October.
Deputy Secretary of State Don Francisco Trujillo said the maintenance agreements will expire April 25. Because of unresolved questions whether voting machines are owned by the state or the counties, it's unclear who will be responsible for paying for repairs or maintenance in the coming months, he said.
The agreements serve almost like an insurance policy for costs of maintaining, repairing or upgrading the voting system software, such as that used to tabulate election results.
"It's crucial that our equipment have an insurance policy, if you will," Trujillo said in an interview this week. "So if something goes wrong, they're covered. You don't expect anything to go wrong, but if does it's covered."
He said the secretary of state's office will ask Gov. Bill Richardson to put the voting machine issue on the agenda of a special session of the Legislature if one is held later this year. Richardson and legislative leaders have said a special session may be necessary to revamp next year's budget if the state's revenues .
The Legislature, which ended a 60-day session about two weeks ago, failed to approve a bill that would have allocated $665,000 for maintenance and support agreements for software and hardware of voting equipment purchased in 2006 when New Mexico switched to a statewide paper ballot system. The bill also would have made clear that the machines would be owned and maintained by the state.
Then Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron bought the machines from ES&S using federal money received under the Help America Vote Act. But unlike some other states, New Mexico didn't use the federal money to pay for multiyear maintenance agreements for its new voting system.
Maintenance costs have been the subject of complaints by counties since a one-year warranty on the equipment expired. Counties have objected to the high cost of maintenance agreements. They contend the state should maintain the equipment because it bought the machines and never transferred title to the counties.
The secretary of state's office obtained an emergency loan last year to help pay for maintenance of the voting equipment during primary and general elections. However, Trujillo said the office no longer has money to keep those agreements in place. A 30-day notice was given to ES&S on March 24 to cancel the maintenance agreements.
A bill in this year's Legislature was intended to resolve the voting equipment dispute. Trujillo said the secretary of state's office agreed to assume responsibility for maintaining the voting equipment as long as the Legislature provided money to cover the expense. But with the state facing severe budget problems, the voting equipment bill failed to pass.
If the Legislature doesn't provide money for maintenance agreements during a special session, then the secretary of state's office will ask lawmakers to tackle the issue in 2010.
"We intend to do everything in our power to get some kind of an agreement on the maintenance and support of our voting machines prior to the 2010 election cycle," said Trujillo.
However, Nichols and Trujillo said this year is the best time for testing and maintaining voting machines to prepare them for 2010, when statewide offices such as governor as well New Mexico's three congressional seats will be up for election.
"You want to do the maintenance in off years," Nichols said.