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Analysis: New Louisiana election, same old voting machines

September 15, 2019

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Despite a national uproar over election security, Louisiana voters will be casting their ballots next month in a statewide election on the same type of paperless voting machines the state has used since 2005.

No changes are expected for the 2020 presidential election either.

Allegations of improper bid handling derailed plans to replace to Louisiana’s voting machines, so the secretary of state’s office had to redo its vendor search process. The agency still is drafting the solicitation for bid proposals, so new voting machines aren’t coming soon.

Still, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said voters should feel confident in the machines they will use to cast their ballots in the Oct. 12 and Nov. 16 elections for Louisiana governor, six other statewide positions and state legislative seats.

“Our voting machines are absolutely still the voting machines that we have trusted for quite some time now,” Ardoin said as he registered for his own reelection bid in the October election. “We feel like we have a lot of checks and balances in place that continue the process that makes Louisiana the envy of the nation in terms of secure elections.”

But national experts have warned about the type of voting system that Louisiana and a few other states use because the electronic voting machines do not produce a paper record that allows voters to verify their choices before casting their ballot. They say these machines are vulnerable and hackers could manipulate outcomes without detection.

After hackers tried to access U.S. election systems in 2016, a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine urged “human-readable paper ballots,” which Louisiana doesn’t have.

Louisiana intends to add a paper trail for the next round of voting machines it will buy or lease, but that could take years to have the full, new system in place.

Ardoin said Louisiana’s voting machines don’t touch the internet and aren’t programmed with computers that have ever touched the internet, describing that as a strong safeguard against hacking. He said Louisiana uses its own staff to program machines, not allowing outside vendors do the work.

“We have almost 10,000 voting machines in 64 warehouses. Somebody would have to get to each individual machine without indication or detection,” Ardoin said.

In other states, cybersecurity experts have questioned if such efforts are enough, because of data transfers among computers and other machine warehousing vulnerabilities.

Louisiana’s secretary of state’s office started searching for a voting machine contractor in March 2018, soliciting bids to replace 10,000 Election Day and early voting machines bought in 2005 with smaller devices that have improved technology and provide that paper record of votes.

But a multimillion-dollar contract award was scrapped months later. The state’s chief procurement officer said the secretary of state’s office didn’t follow legal requirements in choosing the winning vendor.

Ardoin’s office said it’s working on a new bid solicitation, trying to make certain that the latest effort doesn’t run into any of the problems of last time. Ardoin said any contract for voting machine replacement — whether leasing or buying new machines — will be phased in over three to five years

For now, Ardoin has said his office is spending $2 million to rent temporary early voting machines for the October and November elections. He said he’ll continue the rental through the 2020 presidential election cycle. The office will continue using spare parts to make sure the decade-old Election Day voting machines are running properly.

Can voters be assured rented machines haven’t been connected to the internet or faced tampering if Louisiana hasn’t had those machines in its control the entire time? Ardoin insists the answer is yes.

“They were brand new machines, as to my knowledge,” he said. “They’re also being leased under the same vendor so the vendor knew all the policies and procedures and the processes we were already following, and we required them to follow those.”

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law estimates that Louisiana will be one of only eight states using paperless voting machines by the 2020 elections.

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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

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