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    Voting machine makers send in hefty proposals

    Five companies submit information on costs, training and safeguards to a Pinellas committee.

    By LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001


    Five voting companies, from the market leader to a company with fewer than 30 employees, want to sell voting machines to Pinellas County.

    For now, the most-debated question, how much the systems cost, remains unanswered. The county plans to keep the proposals, which were due Monday, secret until Wednesday.

    But one thing's certain: The citizens committee evaluating the proposals will have plenty of work to do. A spokeswoman for Sequoia Voting Systems said its proposal was more than 200 pages long. Once 25 copies were made, it filled three boxes and weighed 120 pounds.

    "It's going to be a very challenging task for all of us," said committee member Joan Brock, deputy supervisor of the county elections office.

    The seven-member committee will meet Sept. 25 to try out demonstration voting machines. The committee has until Oct. 8 to make a recommendation to county commissioners, who make the final decision.

    Pinellas is one of the largest of 41 Florida counties that must buy new machines because of last fall's recount headaches. Pasco and Hillsborough are also in the midst of the voting machine selection process. Hernando and Citrus already use optical scan systems that have received legislative approval.

    Pinellas officials aren't sure what type of machines they want: cheaper optical scanners or more expensive, cutting-edge touch-screen machines. They asked vendors to provide costs for a touch-screen system, for optical scanners and for a combination of the two. The county also has discussed using the scanners, but adding a touch screen in each precinct, because they are easier for disabled voters to use.

    Companies had to provide not just costs, but details on how the machines work, what training they would provide local elections workers and what safeguards they provide in case of power failures or other emergencies.

    The county usually keeps such proposals sealed for 10 days, said Joe Lauro, county purchasing director. It is allowed to seal them under an exemption to the state's public records law and planned to do so with the voting system proposals.

    But after inquiries by the St. Petersburg Times, Lauro conferred with Betsy Steg, senior assistant county attorney, who talked to county Judge Patrick Caddell, chairman of the evaluation committee. Caddell said the proposals should become public as soon as committee members see them, Steg said.

    "There's obviously a great deal of interest among the whole community about this purchase, and we want to be sure it is going to be an open process," Steg said.

    In June, Pinellas got early cost estimates from two companies ranging from $3-million for optical scanners to $14-million to $21-million for touch-screen systems. The new proposals are expected to be lower because Pinellas has dropped the number of machines it wants from 5,000 to 4,200 touch screens or 438 optical scanners instead of 500.

    County commissioners at first set aside $15-million for the machines in next year's budget. But commissioners voted 4-3 to slash that to $6.7-million the night they passed the final budget. Dissenters say that could hurt the county's choice, but others say the county can borrow money if it's needed.

    The five companies submitting proposals are:

    Election Systems & Software Inc., or ES&S, the world's largest election management company. Its iVotronic machine is the only touch-screen machine that has been approved by the state elections office, although more approvals are expected soon. Dan McGinnis, a company vice president, said Monday the company provided details for all three Pinellas scenarios. Pasco will spend as much as $4.6-million with the company to provide 1,500 touch-screen machines.

    Global Election Systems Inc., a Texas-based company that makes touch screens and optical scanners. It already has optical scan systems in 18 Florida counties.

    Hart Intercivic Inc., also based in Texas, makes a unit that displays a ballot on an electronic screen. Unlike a touch screen, voters choose candidates using a dial and a button.

    Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., a California-based company, makes a touch-screen machine that is the most widely tested. Its product was used in the 2000 general election in Riverside, Calif. Pinellas elections officials visited Riverside recently to see how well the system has worked there.

    UniLect Corp., a privately held California company, has less than 30 workers, but company president Jack Gerbel said Monday the company's touch-screen system costs less than others and has more backup memory. Unlike several other voting companies, UniLect makes only touch screens.

    "We have not been like ES&S or Sequoia or Global, who have been down in Florida with an optical scan for years," Gerbel said. "We're just not known as well."

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