County faces cost to replace voting machines

Warren County must replace almost 70 touchscreen voting machines that the State Board of Elections decertified this week.

The Board of Elections chose on Tuesday to decertify the WinVote equipment used in more than 560 voting precincts in 30 cities and counties. The action means none of the machines can be used in any election effective immediately.

General Registrar Carol Tobin said Wednesday that she and the Electoral Board decided to work with their vendor to rent optical scan voting machines in time for the June 9 Republican Party primary for the 29th House of Delegates District. The only alternative: rent or borrow unfamiliar machines from another locality that would require training in a short time. County election officials will rent the equipment until they decide their next move, Tobin said.

“But we’ve already been planning and we have a plan in place and everything hopefully will be run smooth as silk on Election Day,” Tobin said.

The county agency will only need to use machines in the four precincts in the 29th District.

With the State Board of Elections decision, Warren County must mothball the 67 WINVote touchscreen machines. The county likely will go with optical scan devices because localities can no longer replace touchscreen equipment, Tobin noted.

“I mean this put such a crunch on localities that had the WINVote machine, you don’t want to make a decision without having, you know, information,” Tobin said. “[The primary] will be kind of like a good opportunity for some voters to see what the optical scan is like and how the process works and, in turn, will give us opportunities.”

The county already uses an optical scan device for voters who submit absentee ballots, Tobin noted.

The cost to replace 67 voting machines with optical scan equipment remains unknown at this time, Tobin said. The registrar’s office and the Electoral Board have incorporated in their long-term, capital improvements plan to buy new machines. The decertification makes that need more urgent.

“It’s just a matter of educating the voters and our officers of election to use something different,” Tobin said. “Hopefully it’s a positive experience for everybody.

“We knew that this was coming in the future, anyway,” Tobin added. “We just may have to implement it quicker than we had anticipated.”

Department of Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés said Tuesday that at this time it’s unlikely the state would be able to provide localities any financial help to replace the decertified machines with new equipment. An initiative proposed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe earlier this year that would have used state money to help offset the local cost to replace old machines failed to receive enough support from the General Assembly.

“At this point it really will have to be up to each locality to fund the purchase of replacement equipment,” Cortés said.

Localities can buy equipment through the state’s contracts with certified vendors, Cortés noted. Localities also can lease rather the buy equipment to possibly save money, he added.

The Board of Elections made its decision after a review of security concerns identified in the system, feedback from election officials across the state and public comments from residents, technology experts and other stakeholders. The board held the public meeting Tuesday after the Department of Elections uncovered the security concerns during a review of the equipment related to the wireless element of the system. The report revealed that a person could access the system via a smartphone using a simple password.

The state certified the WinVote machines, made by the now-defunct Texas firm Advanced Voting Solutions, in 2003. The version of Microsoft Windows used in the machines had not been updated since 2004, the investigation found.

“The big thing we’re finding and one of the overall issues we’re going to have to look at going forward is the equipment may have been fine when it was first certified but, particularly when you’re talking about wireless, there have been so many advances in technology that have made the system less secure over time,” Cortés said.

This marks the first time the Board of Elections has decertified election equipment, Cortés said. As such, the agency lacks much of a road map to suggest the next steps. The responsibility to buy voting equipment falls on the locality. Cortés noted that localities bought the WINVote machines using federal funds made available in 2003-2004.

The Board of Elections found that voters’ rights to have their votes counted outweighed the fiscal and election administration burdens faced by localities, according to information from the department.

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