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Louisiana lawmakers delay final recommendations on voting machines in order to inspect options

A legislative commission tasked with researching and recommending a new voting system for Louisiana elections decided Wednesday to delay the final recommendations so members could physically inspect the different systems and machines under consideration.

The Louisiana Voting System Commission was scheduled to make its formal recommendation for a new voting system to Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who will ultimately decide which system the state chooses and purchases.

Last year, Republican state lawmakers concerned with election security passed a new law that created the commission and laid out the ground rules for its search for a new voting system. The law requires the state to abandon its all electronic voting system and adopt a system that, at the very least, creates a paper record of each vote cast.

Some commission members, including those aligned with former President Donald Trump, have suggested that the state go back to hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots.

But local election officials said an all-paper system poses significant logistical challenges and few benefits when it comes to election security.

There have been no signs that the state’s aging electronic voting machines, which lack internet connectivity, have ever been hacked. And even if such a hack was theoretically possible, a hacker would need sophisticated software, advanced skills and direct access to enough voting machines to influence an election.

A paper ballot could be falsified with nothing more than a pencil.

State Rep. John Stefanski (R-Crowley) said he did not feel comfortable making a formal recommendation without having seen the various systems in person.

“I’m not in a position to be able to make a vote today until I physically see what a ballot-marking device is, what types of hand-marked ballots look like,” Stefanski said. I want to see the dummy scanners, I want to see the smart scanners, I want to see all of the stuff that we’ve been talking about.”

Because of the wide variety of options under consideration, Ardoin has not offered an estimate of how much it might cost to purchase a new system, but his office has set aside up to $12 million for the purpose.

In its six meetings, the commission has given election experts and members of the public equal opportunity to offer their input on the search.

That has given conspiracy theorists a platform to repeat their baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election and provided them an opportunity to influence the selection of a new voting system.

Those individuals generally favor the state transitioning to a hand-marked paper ballot system.

Louisiana has been trying to replace its aging fleet of voting machines for years, but two separate attempts to purchase replacements fell apart after questions were raised about the Secretary of State office’s handling of the bid solicitation process.

Louisiana avoided much of the controversy that dominated national news in the weeks and months after the election. Trump won Louisiana by an 18-point margin, and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, has fiercely defended the integrity of the state’s election system.

Nevertheless, the search for new voting machines has given Trump supporters in Louisiana an opportunity to repeat their allegations of voter fraud and question the security of the state’s electronic voting systems, and heap criticism on Ardoin.

Republican state lawmakers devoted significant attention to the search for a new voting system during last year’s legislative session. Ardoin scrapped his attempt to seek bids for new voting machines after Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) and other GOP lawmakers accused Ardoin of strategically writing his bid requirements to eliminate certain voting machine vendors from consideration.

Hewitt went on to sponsor legislation that created the Voting System Commission and set requirements for the new machines the state selects. Act 480 requires the state to purchase a system that cannot connect to the internet and would create a paper trail for each vote cast.

The legislation also created the commission and laid out ground rules for the search.

That system could take the form of a “ballot-marking device” that creates a paper record of each vote and vote scanners. Or it could be a paper ballot that is filled out, placed in a privacy envelope and later counted by hand.

Local clerks of court pointed out that an all-paper system would make it difficult to provide timely election results on election night, and scannable paper ballots could be vulnerable to high humidity at many rural polling places that are located in open-air fire stations or other settings exposed to the elements. And a paper-based system would need to be stored in a climate-controlled warehouse, something that is not available to election officials in rural parishes.

The state currently uses direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, which are more accessible for voters with disabilities by providing audible instruction and confirmation for blind voters and easy to press buttons for voters with limited hand function.

But the aging machines are falling out of favor with elections officials across the country because they do not provide an auditable paper record and replacement parts are in short supply.

Commission Member Lillian Dejean, who works for the Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs, said Act 480’s ban on voting machines and ballot counters with any additional software would make it impossible to provide the audio accommodations required for visually-impaired voters.

“I want to make it clear that these restrictions may force us to recommend a voting system that is inherently inaccessible and discriminatory against people with disabilities,” Dejean said.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) asked if the new system could offer the same convenience of the current electronic machines with the added security of paper receipts.

“There could be a happy medium,” Peterson said. “We could accommodate the voters with a system that is very similar to what we have right not and address the issue that we all agree that we need to make it auditable. There may be a simpler way than upending our entire system.”

Hewitt, citing concerns over voter fraud, said the system needs a full overhaul and with the influx of federal aid over the last two years, the state has the money to pay for it.

“We don’t want a half-assed system,” Hewitt said. “DREs are falling apart. Manufacturers aren’t making them as much, which makes it difficult to have the replacement parts or to buy the new machines we need so that is why we are going to a paper-based system. That was settled last year.”

The commission will meet once more to determine and issue its final recommendations. A meeting date has not yet been set.

Copyright 2022 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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