BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With the contract lucrative and available only once every decade or two, vendors were expected to aggressively fight for Louisiana's contract to replace thousands of voting machines.

But the latest search for a company to provide Louisiana's voting equipment attracted more than just intense competition, also drawing allegations the secretary of state's office mishandled parts of the bid process and attempted to manipulate the outcome for the winning bidder.

The questions of impropriety come at the worst time for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the state's chief elections official. Ardoin, a Baton Rouge Republican who took over the job after a sexual harassment scandal ousted his boss Tom Schedler, is running for the elected position on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Claims the voting machine contract award was mishandled could follow Ardoin throughout his campaign, as he suggests his leadership is needed to keep the secretary of state's office on a steady keel.

Already, one of his eight opponents in the race, Republican state Rep. Rick Edmonds of Baton Rouge, called the voting machine selection process "tainted."

Ardoin disagrees with assertions the secretary of state's office tried to rig the selection in favor of Dominion Voting Systems, who was announced as the winning vendor Thursday. He described the evaluation process as "fair and equitable for all bidders." He suggested allegations of impropriety were part of an expected hard-fought competition for the high-dollar work.

"The thing to realize is because decisions are made every 10, 15, 20 years, the process is always very contentious," Ardoin said in an interview. "It's very competitive, and there's very few companies to provide bids in these processes."

Louisiana last purchased voting equipment in 2005. The secretary of state's office wants to replace existing bulky machines with smaller, touch-screen-style equipment, improved technology and a paper trail. Nearly 10,000 machines are slated to be replaced by 2020.

Only three companies competed for the contract. Election Systems and Software raised the allegations of impropriety during the bid process, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

The company said the secretary of state's office issued voting machine standards only Dominion could meet, saying in a formal complaint the standards were a "blatant disregard for impartiality and fairness" and "grossly inappropriate."

Ardoin said release of those standards was a mistake, and he withdrew them. He also scrapped a second set of standards that Election Systems and Software said were posted too late in the process and that Ardoin said were issued by Schedler before he left the office and without Ardoin's knowledge.

None of the contested standards were used to evaluate bidders, Ardoin said.

The Office of State Procurement, which oversaw the bid review and vendor selection, scrapped the original evaluation committee and removed Ardoin from the new review team.

Ardoin said he was part of that decision. He said he was named to the evaluation committee when he was Schedler's chief deputy and wanted to be removed because it wasn't appropriate for the secretary of state to help choose the contractor and then later negotiate final contract terms with the winning bidder.

Jacques Berry, a spokesman for the procurement office, however, described the reworking of the evaluation committee as the office director's "decision unilaterally."

Edmonds seized on Ardoin's removal.

"Reports are showing that the acting secretary of state was kicked off a committee tasked with choosing our state's vendor for our new voting machines because of questionable behavior in the secretary of state's office," Edmonds said in a statement posted to his Facebook page. "Having a person of integrity in this office matters."

The secretary of state's office said Dominion was the low bidder, with estimated costs of up to $95 million for the work. The Office of State Procurement said the Colorado-based company was chosen because "their proposal was determined to be the most advantageous to the state of Louisiana, taking into consideration price and other evaluation factors."

Still, allegations of improper handling of a voting machine deal aren't the best look in a state where a former elections commissioner pleaded guilty less than two decades ago in a voting machine kickback scandal.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte