If Gov. Terry McAuliffe has his way, there will be new voting machines across the commonwealth in time for the 2015 November elections.
McAuliffe announced in a news release last week that his proposed budget includes $28 million to replace the variety of voting machines in the state with a single type of machine that will use paper ballots that get scanned into an electronic format.
The switch will remove touch-screen voting machines that proved to be a problem in the 2014 election, during which 49 localities reported voting equipment issues with no paper trail to fall back on, McAuliffe said.
“[W]e cannot expect Virginians to come to the polls on Election Day if we cannot ensure that their votes will be counted correctly and in a timely manner,” McAuliffe said in the release. “The problems Virginians encountered on Election Day this year were unacceptable, which is why I have taken unprecedented steps to replace all legacy voting equipment in the commonwealth with state-of-the-art machines that have paper trails and will update our Department of Elections website.
The money will cover new voting machines for 2,166 precincts in the state as well as reimburse 401 precincts that have already purchased the approved machines.
Danville Registrar Peggy Petty said the General Assembly had already ordered the switch from touch-screen to scanned paper ballots, forbidding localities from purchasing any more touch screen in 2007, but allowing localities to use their current equipment until it had lived out its full life-expectancy before purchasing new systems.
Petty said she expected Danville’s equipment to last at least until the 2020 presidential election — and while she admits her frugal nature balks at the idea of retiring the current touch screens before it is absolutely necessary, she likes the idea of getting new equipment paid for by the state.
Petty also admits the touch screens are easier — but she also understands that a paper trail is important to ensure the accuracy of any recounts.
Normally, localities have to pay for their own voting equipment, Petty said. She said she had just been developing her upcoming five-year capital improvements budget and had slated replacement for 2020.
“But if [the state] is going to give us new equipment, we’ll take it,” Petty said. “If I have to plan for it, get bids, etc., I’d push it out to 2020 or longer if we could.”
The goal is for all localities to have identical equipment from a single vendor, Petty said — though localities that have already purchased similar machines from various vendors will be able to keep them.
One such locality is Pittsylvania County, which purchased new voting machines in 2013 at a cost of about $330,000, according to Jenny Lee Sanders, the county’s registrar.
Sanders said she, her staff and the poll workers all like the new equipment.
“It’s the best decision I’ve made since I became registrar,” Sanders said.
There were a few grumbles from voters who wondered if it was taking a step backward to switch from touch screens to paper ballots, but Sanders said once the value of a paper trail was explained to them, “people were OK with it.”
Should McAuliffe’s plan be approved, the county would be reimbursed for the cost of the equipment, something that would please county officials, Sanders said.
“The county supervisors would really like that,” she said.
Thibodeau reports for the Danville Register & Bee.