Virginia may pay for new voting machines

Virginia would replace aging, problematic voting machines for cities and counties by the next election under a proposal pushed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The governor announced this week that he is proposing a one-time investment of $28 million in Virginia Public Building Authority bonds to replace all legacy voting machines — optical scan and touchscreen — with digital-scan equipment that have paper trails. The state would replace machines for 2,166 precincts and reimburse local governments for 401 approved machines already bought.

This past Election Day, 49 localities reported problems with voting equipment. Precincts also use a wide variety of machines, many of which are outdated and do not provide a paper trail. McAuliffe’s initiative would allow uniformity across the state. The proposal also includes $30,000 in the budget per fiscal year to update the Department of Elections’ website that has suffered technical difficulties on election night in recent years.

Shenandoah County uses optical-scan machines, but also makes touchscreen devices available to handicapped voters. General Registrar Lisa McDonald said Thursday that optical-scan machines can jam up on occasion, but none of the devices caused any major problems at the polls. The county has about 30 machines total but many have outlived their 15-year life expectancy, McDonald said. The county bought its optical-scan machines in 1997 and touchscreen devices about 10 years ago, McDonald said. The past few years McDonald has tried to buy a couple of new machines each budget cycle.

“We were at the point where the electoral board decided that we should look to replacing our entire system,” McDonald said. “We put half the money in this year and half the money in last year and then hopefully we have then had all of the funds to purchase them. But if the state’s going to help us, then we’ll definitely look into that, too.”

Digital-scan machines include a touchscreen component that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, McDonald said. Some digital-scan machines also can print a verification receipt that ballots were cast.

Warren County uses two types of equipment for voting — Winvote touchscreen devices for elections purchased in recent years and a digital optical scanner for the absentee ballots voters receive and return by mail. Carol Tobin, registrar for Warren County, said her department tests its machines before each election. The only problem she has heard of at the precincts is that machines hibernate if not plugged into a wall socket.

“We’ve been very happy with the machines that we have,” Tobin said.

Frederick County uses touchscreen machines. General Registrar Rick Miller said Thursday that his department has not experienced any major equipment problems on Election Day. The county bought 122 machines in 2003; received one free from the Department of Elections (then the State Board of Elections) in 2008; and purchased five used devices in 2011.

More details about the governor’s initiative likely would come out in the coming weeks, said Rose Mansfield, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elections.

“It’s primarily in response to Virginia recognizing that a lot of our voting equipment is aging,” Mansfield said this week. “It’s coming to the point where it really needs to be addressed.”

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com