Voters in Johnson County, get your index fingers ready. You’ll be signing your name on an iPad when you show up at the polls for the primary and general elections this year.
The voting process will go further into the digital age this year with new hardware and software to replace the big poll books the election commission has used for decades.
Poll books hold a list of voters for each precinct. One of the first tasks of voting involves telling a poll worker your name to be sure you’re in the right place, then signing under the ruler in the poll book to record that you’ve voted.
That will change this year because the county elections commission is updating its equipment, moving more of it into an electronic system. The Johnson County Commission on Thursday approved a measure to budget $936,000 to replace of administrative software and buy iPad Air 2 tablets so they can be in place by July for advance voting in the August primary. The county already had about $836,000 in an account reserved for new equipment. The action adds $100,000 to that.
“This is going to be by all indications an epic election year,” said Ronnie Metsker, county elections commissioner.
The electronic poll books have several advantages over paper, he said. Besides eliminating printing costs, the tablets will be able to scan driver’s licenses or accept manual entry of other types of state-approved voter ID, he said. They interface with the statewide voter database and can even print out directions when a voter shows up in the wrong place, he added.
“It eliminates a lot of potential for human error and will speed up the process,” he said. “It will be our concern that we have a smooth process, expedite the line and be as efficient as possible and do the election process in the least expensive way,” he said.
The ticket taken to the voting machines is printed out by a thermal printer that is on the agenda for funding next week. The iPads are already in use and working well in 16 Kansas counties, Metsker said. They were tested at some Johnson County locations in three recent elections.
Metsker, who took over the election office from Brian Newby almost 100 days ago, is hurrying to replace equipment that is aging out and to get workers trained for the election. His office will soon launch a recruitment effort to train workers on the new equipment. The training schedule of 17 dates is, “a much more intensive schedule than we have had in over a decade in Johnson County,” he said.
Metsker has been on a quest for funds to quickly update election equipment that he said is close to the end of its life. He has also asked the commission to consider spending an estimated $12.8 million in the next year or two to replace the voting machines. The county’s voting machines are 12 or 13 years old and no longer in production.
Johnson County is in the same boat as many other counties across the country that went to electronic voting equipment in the early 2000s with the help of federal money. Newby, who is now the head of the federal Election Assistance Commission, had also asked for equipment upgrades. But opinions differ on why that hasn’t begun to happen until now.
Since Newby left, he’s been criticized in a county audit of his department for what the auditors said was inadequate record keeping, overspending and unallowable travel expense items. He’s been asked to pay the county back $5,478 on the travel expenses.
Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said the commission didn’t get specific enough requests from Newby on the equipment upgrades.
Newby declined to comment on that. However a look through his “Election Diary” blog site shows several entries detailing his frustration with the county’s inaction on voting machines. In June 2014, he called out the county manager’s office when the request was left out of the 2015 budget purchasing forecast.
“Reducing the budgeted amount in 2011 and removing it altogether in 2012, and then pinning the absence of voting machines in the budget today on a lack of clarity from the election commissioner conjures the need here for several adjectives. For now, ‘unfair’ will do,” he wrote on June 5, 2014.
In other posts, Newby said the administrative software system was so outdated that it was unclear if the office could recover in the event of a system crash. “In Johnson County, not investing in elections for years and years will eventually come to roost,” he said.
There was little resistance from commissioners last week for the iPad purchase. All seven voted to approve the purchase. Commissioner Michael Ashcraft noted he generally dislikes purchases that are excepted from competitive bidding, as this one was.
Metsker said the purchase from KNOWiNK is the system that works most seamlessly with the state’s voter database.