By Tia Lyons
City officials have said they are reluctant to enter a debate about whether Union County should participate in a statewide cost-sharing program to purchase new voting machines for the 2018 elections.
Several county officials hashed out the matter during a regular council meeting on Sept. 7 after Union County Quorum Court member Dean Storey asked the council to encourage the quorum court to purchase new electronic voting machines.
While council members said they would support any decision the quorum court made in the matter, they said they did not feel it was appropriate to voice opinions beforehand.
“I don’t know if we need to put our two cents in until the quorum court decides, and it seems like y’all are more than capable,” Mayor Frank Hash said.
“We don’t want it to seem like you’re pressured to vote based on what we say,” Hash said.
Storey explained that Secretary of State Mark Martin is offering a total of $6 million — $5 million from the state government and $1 million from Martin’s office — to assist counties in replacing voting machine with new electronic equipment.
“It’s to protect the sanctity and security of voting and an effort by the state to replace antiquated voting machines,” Storey said.
The county’s existing voting machines supplied by Harp Enterprises are obsolete and are used by only two counties in Arkansas, Union and Ouachita.
“Now, parts are only available from outside services, not the normal manufacturer,” Storey said.
To participate in the cost-sharing program, Storey said counties would have to sign up on a list, and if selected, would have to split costs 50/50 with the state.
The program ends once the funds are used.
The cost for Union County to purchase 40 new electronic machines has been estimated at $200,000, Storey said.
He said the secretary of state’s office demonstrated how the new electronic machines work, adding that the state would cover costs to maintain the machines once the warranty expires.
Additionally, Storey said the new machines would help to turn out voting results faster.
“In Boone County, they had results in an hour and a half after polls closed, not several hours like Union County,” he said.
Storey said that while he understood the city’s position, he came to aldermen for their support because El Dorado is the largest voting bloc in the county.
“We’re aboard. We’ll agree with whatever y’all decide,” Alderman Vance Williamson said.
Union County Clerk Shannon Phillips said she trusts the ability of the quorum court to handle the matter, but she expressed concern about switching out the county’s existing voting machines with the new ones that are being offered by the state program.
“The voting machines we have now are 17 years old. They’re very sturdy, very trustworthy … Just because something’s old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work,” Phillips said.
Phillips and quorum court member Greg Harrison said the $200,000 estimated cost for Union County does not cover all of the new machines that would be needed.
‘We have 29 precincts in the county, and we need 58 machines. We have asked the secretary of state to come up with an alternate proposal,” Harrison said.
Phillips and Harrison said that Harp can supply parts and technical assistance for existing machines.
Phillips said the county purchased four refurbished machines for the 2016 general election, which set record voting numbers in Union County.
She also said the existing machines are user-friendly, particularly for senior voters.
She and Harrison, who formerly served on the Union County Election Commission, said Union County has not experienced voting security issues the new machines are intended to address.
For instance, they said there were reports of vote swapping in Pulaski County in 2016.
“They clicked Republican and then switched to Democrat. There were programming malfunctions,” Harrison said.
“You also can’t see the full ballot when you go into the election box. You can only see one election at a time,” he continued.
In some of the more rural polling sites in the county, including Felsenthal and Three Creeks, Harrison said availability of Internet service is limited and would not be compatible with the technology of the electronic voting machines.
Phillips raised another concern about the new voting system, telling city officials that bar codes would be required for ballots.
“The poll worker gives you a bar code and you put it at the top of the ballot. People worry that they can see how they voted,” Phillips said. “It’s a worry for me too.”
Currently, Union County uses bar codes only to scan absentee ballots.
Harrison said the quorum court had recently tabled the matter, but he agreed that the county should get on the list for the cost-sharing program.
“So, if they tell us the money is available, then we can decide at that time if we want it or not,” he said. “What we have now is reliable, efficient, and dependable.”
Tia Lyons may be reached at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@ eldoradonews.com.