Bids for new voting system highlights need for caution

Given that more than $1 million separate the low and high bids for an electronic voting system being sought by the Mahoning County Board of Elections, the staff and members of the elections board cannot just focus on getting the best deal pricewise. They must determine which system would meet the county's current and future needs.
Six companies submitted proposals, including Unilect Corp. of Dublin, Calif., which quoted a price of $2,026,500 and Sequoia Voting Systems of Denver, Colo., which came in at $3,759,200.
In between, Fidlar Doubleday Inc. of Rock Island, Ill., bid $2,520,500; Elections Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb., bid $3,105,427 for one system and $3,551,427 for another that utilizes a larger computer screen; Global Election Systems of McKinney, Texas, $3,376,394.67; and Hart Intercivic Inc. of Austin, Texas, bid $3,518,021.
The board of elections would like to replace the paper-ballot voting equipment with an electronic system in time for the May 2002 primary, which will be a major election because of the statewide and congressional races.
However, as we noted in an editorial earlier this year, caution is advised in making a decision about the changeover. Mahoning County's paper-ballot system has been in use for the past 17 years and there have been relatively few problems. The voters in the county, many of whom are senior citizens, are comfortable using a pencil to fill in the ovals on the paper ballot and could be intimidated by the touch-screen method. In addition, the devices that now scan the paper ballots and the vote-tabulation machines have proved to be fast and accurate.
As long as there are companies manufacturing equipment needed for the paper balloting system, there is no reason for the staff and the board of elections to rush to judgment on electronic voting.
Speed and accuracy should be the standard for any system that replaces the current one.
Question: Given that Unilect Corp. wants $2.02 million for its system, while Sequoia Voting is asking $3.7 million, the question that immediately comes to mind is this: Does the higher priced system have bells and whistles that the board of elections would never use, or is the lower priced one so basic that it could become archaic after a short time?
Board Chairman Mark E. Munroe is right when he says, "It's going to take some analysis to see how the systems stack up side by side."
Another issue that will have to be addressed is how electronic voting would fit into a statewide system that may be established if federal money becomes available. Given the controversy surrounding last year's presidential election, some members of Congress have raised the possibility of the federal government helping states pay for uniform voting methods.

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