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Will Johnson County be ready for the 2016 presidential election?

Johnson County Election Office’s voting machines are some of the oldest in the country and aren’t even in production anymore.
Johnson County Election Office’s voting machines are some of the oldest in the country and aren’t even in production anymore. Special to the Star

The Johnson County Election Office is scrambling to update voting equipment and get polling places ready for what Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker expects to be a heavy voter turnout in the November general election.

Metsker, who has been elections commissioner for less than 100 days, has asked county commissioners to fast-track a purchase of about $936,000 of electronic equipment so it can be in place for the November elections. He has also asked them to consider around $12.8 million for the 2017 budget to replace the county’s voting machines, which he said are some of the oldest in use in the country.

Metsker, who was appointed to replace Brian Newby as head of county election office, said election officials in the Kansas Secretary of State’s office warned him when he took over that he’d have a lot to do to be ready.

“We have great concerns about the intensity of this election year so we have been seeking to get caught up,” Metsker said.

Voters can expect to see some changes in how the county handles this election. County officials have been adjusting the number of regular and advance voting locations as well as the number of machines at each polling place.

Metsker plans fewer regular polling places this year than in 2008, but more machines and more advance voting locations. In 2008, there were 284 polling places, but the Metsker plans 225 this year. However there will be six locations for advance voting this year rather than the four the county offered eight years ago.

Election officials recently finalized the last of those locations. They will be at the Northeast Johnson County offices in Mission, the county Arts and Heritage Center at the former King Louie, Hilltop Learning Center in south Overland Park, Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee and the county elections office and Sunset Building, both in Olathe.

The electronic equipment is also of immediate concern, Metsker told commissioners. He asked for money from the current budget to replace two systems that track the administrative part of running an election as well as the paper poll books. The county has a fund of around $836,000 saved from previous years for new equipment.

If the new equipment is approved, the electronic poll books will be the most noticeable to voters. For years, poll workers have looked up and recorded every voter in large paper books that voters are asked to sign. That experience would be completely different with the purchase of 600 electronic poll books Metsker has asked for.

The large paper books would give way to a device that is securely linked to the voter registration database. The specialized tablet scans a voter’s ID and finds the record. It also prints a ballot ticket after the voter signs on the tablet.

The tablets also allow for quicker reporting of election results, because the machines report how many in each precinct have voted without relying on poll workers to call it in, Metsker said. And they will print directions for people who show up at the wrong polling places as well.

The electronic poll books have been tested in three smaller Johnson County elections and are used successfully in 16 Kansas counties, including Wyandotte, he said.

He also asked for software to help the county keep track of all the machines, polling places, opening times, contact information and poll workers that are part of running an election. The current system dates to 1998 and runs on code that is not compatible with modern operating systems, Metsker said.

The county also needs to consider replacing the voting machines themselves — and soon, Metsker said.

Most of the machines the county uses were made in 2003-04, and although they have been stable and accurate, they are no longer in production, he said. The county bought some reconditioned machines in 2012 as backups. “We’re not certain but we think our machines are the oldest of their kind still being used out there in the field.”

Johnson, Wyandotte, Sedgwick and Shawnee counties put out a joint request for quotes on new voting systems in the past, and found that a new system currently available would cost about $12.8 million. However Metsker said he’d like to wait for another option that would be newer but is still in the certification process with the federal Election Assistance Commission, which Newby now heads. He said the system might be cheaper, but he won’t be able to get a quote until it becomes certified.

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