ES&S Backs Out of $1.8M E-voting Deal

Leon County, Fla., starts new search for equipment

Election officials in Florida's Leon County are scrambling to comply with state and federal voting laws after the county's preferred vendor for optical scan voting systems backed out of an informal deal.

The Leon County Commission had turned to Election Systems and Software Inc. (ES&S) after voting last month to replace 160 AccuVote optical scan voting machines from Diebold Election Systems Inc. because of fears that the AccuVote machines may not comply with laws on handicapped accessibility. The commission also questioned the accuracy of the Diebold machines.

ES&S had informally agreed to a $1.8 million deal to supply its AutoMark optical scan gear to Leon County. The county had expected that the equipment would help it meet the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and Florida election laws.

All U.S. voting precincts were required by HAVA to have touch-screen or specially equipped optical-scan devices by Jan. 1, 2006. Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho said last week that he doesn't expect to face penalties as long as the county is working to get equipment.

Sancho said that he couldn't explain why Omaha-based ES&S backed out of the proposed deal, which had included agreements on price, terms and equipment.

In an e-mail statement, ES&S also offered no specific reasons for its decision. "Toward the end of last year, we were presented with the possibility of entering into a long-term relationship with the county," an ES&S spokesman said. "After a great deal of careful consideration, we made the decision [on Dec. 29] not to enter into an agreement to provide equipment and services to the county.

"After evaluating all of the information available to us at the time, we determined that we were unlikely to have an effective partnership with the county," the spokesman said.

The county had expected to have ES&S voting systems in place for the next federal election and to gain federal grant money to help pay for them.

Sancho said approval of any federal grants for the equipment is now in jeopardy as the county begins a new search for voting machines that meet state and federal guidelines. The options include once again turning to Diebold equipment or choosing another vendor, he said.

"At this point, it's not clear what we'll do," said Sancho. "I've got two major entities in the elections business that simply don't have the time to deal with Leon County."

Sancho has been public with his doubts about the reliability of electronic voting gear; he even sponsored test hacks into the county's Diebold AccuVote optical scan systems -- a move that led to a somewhat strained relationship with Allen, Texas-based Diebold.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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