Voting machine search a political minefield

Published 7:47 pm Tuesday, March 2, 2021

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — If Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin needed another indication about the politically dicey nature of his work to replace Louisiana’s voting machines, he received a bracing and loud reminder during his luncheon speech to a group of Republican women.

The women assembled at the Baton Rouge event interrupted his remarks, yelled questions, chastised his responses and accused the Republican elections chief of dodging their concerns. One woman shouted at him from a table, then moved closer to challenge him more directly, saying: “You work for us, and we are unhappy.”

And those are people within Ardoin’s own party.

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“I hear you,” Ardoin repeatedly tried to tell the women.

But it’s already clear Ardoin won’t be able to calm all the concerns. A dissatisfied leader of the Senate elections oversight committee Thursday pointedly urged Ardoin to shelve the bid process and redo it later.

The secretary of state’s effort to replace 10,000 Election Day and early voting machines with newer, updated technology comes amid intense national scrutiny about the way people vote and the way elections officials tally those ballots.

Despite dozens of court rulings upholding the presidential election results, supporters of Donald Trump continue to assert baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud in states the former president lost in November.

They have targeted the current voting technology firm Louisiana uses, Dominion Voting Systems, for the unfounded claims. Some Republicans want to bar the company from being allowed to win another state contract — at odds with the public bid process.

Meanwhile, at least one company bidding for the work is complaining the bid process is skewed.

Discontent with Ardoin’s handling of the voting machine replacement work so far already has the chair of the Senate’s elections oversight committee, Sen. Sharon Hewitt, asking Ardoin to cancel the search, get more outside input and restart a new bid solicitation later.

Hewitt, who also leads the Senate’s GOP delegation, sent Ardoin a letter accusing him of rushing too quickly into the search, blocking legislative oversight and trying to avoid public scrutiny. Ardoin offered no indication he intended to follow her suggestion, but Hewitt could make efforts to win the required legislative support for a contract very difficult for him.

The search for new voting machines already is a redo after a 2018 replacement effort started by Ardoin’s predecessor ended with the contract award for Dominion scuttled amid allegations of bias and impropriety.

Ardoin launched the latest search for a voting machine vendor on Jan. 27, saying some of the decades-old equipment that Louisiana uses is no longer made and the state has to scavenge parts for repairs. Bids from companies interested in the contract were supposed to be due at the end of March. Louisiana’s contract is estimated to be worth up to $100 million.

Ardoin wants to have the first new early voting machines in some parishes by the spring 2022 elections. But the effort has faced delays because of complaints from Texas-based Hart InterCivic, which says the requirements sought for new voting machines could arbitrarily exclude it and other qualified voting technology firms from bidding for the work. Ardoin disagreed.

Attendees at Wednesday’s luncheon of the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Women asked why Ardoin was looking for a new voting system for Louisiana at all, particularly after Ardoin said “Louisiana had a phenomenal election” cycle with its current machines. They suggested new machines could leave the state’s elections more vulnerable to hacking.

Ardoin tried to reassure the women about the replacement, saying some of Louisiana’s voting machines are nearing their end of life and the systems are programmed only by his staff. That didn’t soothe all concerns.

Before Ardoin’s speech, the GOP organization showed a video that slammed Louisiana’s current voting system contractor, Dominion. The Colorado-based company has provided voting technology in Louisiana since 2011 and is bidding for the new contract.

But the company is under fire from Trump supporters who insist its machines were somehow to blame for Trump’s loss in key swing states — but not his victory in Louisiana. Dominion has sued several high-profile figures in response.

Ardoin walked out of the room and closed himself in the bathroom when the anti-Dominion video played, provoking more complaints. When he returned, Ardoin said state law prohibits him from engaging in discussions about a specific contract bidder while the vendor search is ongoing.

He can’t hide, however, from the intense scrutiny.

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.