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    Pinellas County to assess voting systems

    Touch screen bids exceed the budget. But one official doesn't mind financing the right equipment.

    By LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 13, 2001


    If commissioners buy cutting-edge touch screen voting machines, the systems will cost $9.4-million to $15.5-million, far more than the $6.7-million that they budgeted next year for the purchase.

    But Commissioner Susan Latvala said the county needs to think quality before cost, even if it means financing the bill over a few years.

    "Money is not an issue at this point," she said. "Our responsibility is to buy the best possible equipment to serve the voters."

    Five voting companies, from the market leader to a company with fewer than 30 employees, want to sell voting machines to Pinellas County. After receiving the companies' proposals Monday, the county released cost figures Wednesday. A seven-member committee will test the machines and recommend their choice by Oct. 8 to commissioners, who will make the final choice.

    County Judge Patrick Caddell, chairman of the evaluation committee and the Elections Canvassing Board, said he hasn't formed any opinions yet. He is going to have to "wade through" the proposal notebooks first.

    "So much of this stuff, when you deal with government contracts is bureau-babble," he said.

    Pinellas officials aren't sure what type of machines they want: cheaper optical scanners or more expensive touch screen models. They asked the companies to provide costs for a touch screen system, for optical scanners and for a combination of the two.

    But records show that the proposals offer fewer choices than the county sought. All five companies submitted proposals for machines that electronically record votes. Four of those are touch screen systems, where voters touch a computer screen to make choices. Hart Intercivic Inc. makes a computer unit that is similar, but voters use a dial and button instead of touching the screen.

    But only two companies submitted proposals for the cheaper optical scanners, which read paper ballots on which voters color in ovals to mark their choice. Those would cost $3-million or $3.2-million.

    The same two companies said combining the two would cost $4.9-million. The county asked what it would cost to supply optical scanners in each precinct, plus one touch screen machine that would be easier for disabled voters to use.

    One company, Sequoia Voting Systems, makes optical scanners but offered Pinellas prices only for touch screens. Company spokeswoman Kathryn Ferguson said the company is concentrating on touch screens in Florida. But she also said that mixing the two would be too hard for poll workers and for voters.

    "If you have just one touch screen in a polling place, people are going to want to use that," she said. "Claims about equal protection might be brought."

    Hart said it could provide the cheapest electronic machines, but its $9.4-million proposal included 3,175 units instead of 4,200, as the county requested. Hart said in the proposal that the county had overestimated the number of units it would need per voter.

    All five said they would be willing to finance the purchase for extra interest costs.

    Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said he has not seen any of the five proposals. He said he wants to hear from the citizens evaluation committee before making up his mind.

    But he is pleased with the potential price tag.

    "$9.5-million, that's a lot better than we thought," Harris said. "That's manageable."

    The proposals

    Here are the five proposals for Pinellas County voting machines:

    * * *

    Election Systems & Software

    Touch screen: $12,649,556

    Optical scan: $2,981,106

    Combination: $4,884,216

    * * *

    Global Election Systems:

    Touch screen: $13,300,040

    Optical scan: $3,198,878

    Combination: $4,901,400

    * * *

    Sequoia Voting Systems

    Touch screen: $15,453,590

    * * *

    UniLect Corp.

    Touch screen: $9,464,100

    * * *

    Hart InterCivic

    Electronic recorder:

    $9,359,950

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