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Louisiana Commission Votes on Future Election Systems

The Voting Systems Commission will recommend how the state should conduct future elections. Many conservatives want to reinstate hand-marked ballots, but critics highlight the inaccessibility to some disabled voters.

(TNS) — Born from the widespread, if incorrect, fears that American elections are tainted, Louisiana's Voting Systems Commission met five times over the past six months.

The commission's work could conclude Wednesday when it votes on recommendations to Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin on how to conduct Louisiana elections into the future.

Many conservatives argued to the commission that they want to replace voting machines with hand-marked paper ballots that are counted by hand. And that method is among the four options to be considered Wednesday by the commission. But an abundance of problems attends that system, not the least of which is disenfranchising disabled voters without sight or use of their hands.

"My preference at this point is ballot marking devices (that prints a paper receipt) that the voters can verify and then put into an electronic scanner that maintains an electronic copy of it and a paper copy for audit purposes and tabulates it, so that we can have election results on election night," Ardoin said in an interview. "I prefer that option because it gives us an opportunity to provide for our disabled individuals to be able to vote as independently as possible."

It's a method he sought in two failed proposals before controversy over the 2020 presidential election results turned the temperature high on the issue.

Ardoin has no idea of how much that system would cost, even a ballpark figure. He suspects it'll be very expensive. "That's why the law says 'recommendations to the secretary.' I've got to be able to make responsible decisions. I might want a Porsche, but I might only be able to afford a mid-sized van," Ardoin said.

The Legislature, so far, has earmarked $12 million, which Ardoin said he would use to purchase components that the new system needs.

Whatever the recommendation, Ardoin will have to draft those thoughts into regulations and standards for the Administrative Code — a public process that could take six months or more. He then will use those regulations as the basis of a formal "request for proposals" that elections hardware and software companies would use to describe what equipment and services they could provide the state and what cost. The state would choose between those bidders.

Louisiana is one of the few states that still use "direct recording electronic" voting machines that went into use 20 years ago. Today, most voters across the country use a system that provides a paper trail.

The 13-member Voting Systems Commission was established in July by Act 480 after angry Trump supporters filled the Senate & Governmental Affairs committee claiming the 2020 election was stolen. The act, by state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican chair in charge of the committee, requires Louisiana use a voting system that creates some kind of paper trail and can't be connected to the internet.

Made up of elections experts, including Hewitt and Ardoin, cybersecurity specialists and others, the commission held meetings open to the general public who were allowed to offer their thoughts on what type of system Louisiana should buy or lease.

One the headliners at commission hearings was Phil Waldron, a retired U.S. Army colonel who worked with Trump's legal team to claim, without evidence, that the 2020 election results were rigged. His 90-minute presentation was interrupted with applause. He focused on using paper ballots to be counted by hand — a system sought in many Republican majority states.

"We believe that the hand-marked, secure paper ballot is the only mechanism to provide a fair and transparent auditable method," testified Lenar Whitney, a former state representative who now is the National Committeewoman for Louisiana and thus on the executive committee of the Republican Party of Louisiana.

Specialists raised issues about costs and security of going to a fully paper system. For one thing, Louisiana cast 2.15 million votes in the November 2020 presidential election alone and counting that many ballots by hand is time consuming. The congressional elections in that same election attracted 2 million votes and finding out who would make the runoff 31 days later would put pressure on the people doing the hand count.

A bigger problem with hand-written ballots is that people who are blind or near blind or can't use their hands would be unable to vote privately, testified Tory Rocca, a lawyer and director for public policy at Disability Rights Louisiana, a New Orleans-based group that advocates for individuals with disabilities. That would not pass muster with the American Disabilities Act and other federal laws.

"I have to respond to the needs of Louisiana citizens and I have to follow federal laws," Ardoin said. "If we're going to be consistent like we want to be, like we have been, it has to be a hybrid system that works for everybody."

Ardoin twice attempted to replace Louisiana's fleet of aging voting machines. In 2018 the contract award was voided amid allegations of bid rigging. The re-do was put aside in March 2021 after Sen. Hewitt and other Republicans complained about how the search was handled.

"We're running out of replacement parts. We're limping along, we're going to make it. But I know that time is of the essence," Ardoin said.

Should the commission vote Wednesday and regulations take about six months, an optimistic timeline, the bidding process could start. With attention diverted by the legislative session this Spring and staging congressional elections this Fall, Ardoin predicts at least a year will pass before a handful of parishes can do a pilot run of the new system during a springtime 2023 election. Then procedures will have to be refined, commissioners trained and voters educated as the system rolls out parish by parish, he said.

But the first step is the commission's vote on Wednesday.

"We're trying to wrap this up before the Legislature returns," Ardoin said. "We need to get going, if we're going to do this."

(c)2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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