Jim Siegel The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio lawmakers are debating how much money to give counties to replace aging voting machines, but those funds aren’t expected to be part of the state capital budget.
County officials initially had hoped to see money for voting machines included in the two-year capital budget that provides funding for more than $2 billion for infrastructure projects across the state, including university facilities, schools, roads and bridges, and smaller, community projects.
The capital budget is expected to pass by April 1, and the goal for GOP leaders in the House and Senate is to introduce a bill within the next two weeks that already has the agreement of both chambers, allowing for a quick, smooth process.
But there is little quick or smooth about the funding of new voting machines, and Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, said this week he expects that will be part of a separate bill.
“There is some negotiating still that we’re going to have to go through,” he said.
In December, Secretary of State Jon Husted asked lawmakers to approve $118 million in the capital budget to replace aging voting equipment in time for the 2020 election.
County commissioners and the Ohio Association of Elections Officials have recommended $175 million in the capital budget to cover 85 percent of the cost of purchasing the equipment. The counties would cover ongoing maintenance costs.
Meanwhile, Gov. John Kasich’s budget office is reportedly looking at a number closer to $100 million.
Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Hudson, has been hosting a closed-door working group including county officials, state Budget Director Tim Keen, and legislative leaders to work out how the state should pay for the machines. LaRose introduced a voting machine bill last year.
Most voting equipment in Ohio was purchased in 2005 and 2006, largely with $115 million in one-time federal money through the Help America Vote Act. County elections officials say those systems are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, as parts become more scarce and breakdowns more frequent.
In late 2017, county elections boards estimated the cost at $210 million, based on the type and quantity of voting equipment the counties intend to purchase. Roughly half of Ohio counties use optical scanners that read paper ballots, and half use electronic touchscreen devices. The trend is expected to tilt toward optical scanners that record votes at the precinct level.
County officials want the flexibility to determine the type of voting machine that would work best, whether it be less expensive paper-based optical scanners, electronic DRE machines, or a hybrid system.
“We are very encouraged and continue to get positive feedback from the administration and legislative leadership that a strong partnership will be created between state and local government to purchase voting machines and have them in place in time for the 2019 elections,” said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials.
Elections officials want to use them in the lighter-turnout off-election year, rather than debuting them during a presidential election year in 2020.
Lawmakers have a number of decisions to make, including what they want to cover financially.
Husted’s $118 million figure is based on every county purchasing a paper-based system. Lawmakers could decide to go with that figure and require counties to cover any costs above that amount if they decide to go with a more expensive system. Or officials could fund whatever counties choose to pick, restrict what options counties can pick from, or find some whole new methodology.
Lawmakers also must decide how much to reimburse counties that have already purchased new equipment.
Ockerman said elections officials have no preference on whether the money is provided in the capital budget or as a stand-alone bill.