In a move to address ongoing issues with voting technology, the Joint Board of Elections approved the purchase of upgrades to the voting system during a meeting on St. Croix Friday.
The 50 new machines to be purchased, as recommended by Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes, would replace the DS200 system acquired in 2012 for the 2014 elections.
The new system, Express Vote, combines paper-based voting with touch screen technology and is suitable for voters with special needs. Board member Barbara Jackson McIntosh considered the new technology a “step up” from the AutoMark ballot-marking system currently used for blind, visually impaired or disabled voters.
Both Express Vote and the AutoMark system are distributed by ES&S, an elections technology and software company. The board has the option of returning the AutoMark machines to ES&S and applying their value towards the purchase of the new voting machines. However, the $200 trade-in offer for each machine was well below their actual value, McIntosh calculated.
“I think it’s not significant enough, I think they can do better than that,” McIntosh said.
Board member Lisa Harris-Moorhead agreed and expressed some frustration with the momentum around correcting some of the mistakes of the past.
“This board has sat on its hands all this time so I have no issue with the purchase of this if we are indeed purchasing it. I do have a problem with us paying this price,” Moorhead said. “At some point ES&S needs to take responsibility for their part in this failing.”
Board member Raymond J. Williams also advocated for both a higher trade-in value for the AutoMark system as well as the purchase of even more machines than had been recommended by Fawkes.
“We cannot go back to the issue we had in 2014,” Williams said.
Although the DS200 machines purchased for the 2014 elections had promised fast, efficient and verifiable results, prior to voting, problems arose in how ballots were marked when selecting a straight-party ticket. The board decided to store the ballots in the machines and scan them once voting was complete. When ballots were mismarked and could not be scanned, they were remade by Elections officers, casting doubt on the electoral proceedings. The votes were finally verified 11 days after the general election, after much frustration and debate.
Despite problems that arose during those proceedings, board member Diane Magras expressed confidence in the existing machines. The DS200, she argued, “does what they are supposed to do.”
“I think we need to proceed with what we have and use the funding available by Help America Vote Act funds to improve the handicap [access] throughout the territory wherever necessary,” she said, making a case for compliance.
“When the handicapped cannot access our polling places and our election systems in St. John or right here in St. Croix that need to be improved, that’s where that money should be spent,” Magras said.
The exact cost of the new system and the source of funding for them, however, was an “ongoing discussion” according to board Chairman Arturo Watlington Jr.
“It has been a lengthy process but the process has been started. We have to continue the process if we want to be compliant and we want to make the election process for 2016 easier for the voting public,” Watlington said.
While Watlington acknowledged that St. Croix needs to upgrade service for disabled voters, the funds are unavailable due to delays in the adoption of a state plan for HAVA funding. That plan is expected to be presented at the upcoming board meeting on St. Thomas.
In other business, the board also approved a new deputy supervisor for St. Thomas and St. John. The seat had been vacant since the departure of former Deputy Supervisor Nefrediezha Barbel, who went on leave shortly after the August 2014 primary election.
Also attending the meeting were board members Lilliana Belardo de O’Neal, Glenn Webster, Roland Moolenaar, Lydia Hendricks, Lawrence “Larry” Boschulte, Carla Joseph, Alecia M. Wells and Ivy K. Moses.