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St. Louis County Voters To Mostly Use Paper Ballots

According to Washington University's Center for Social Development's latest study, predominantly black residents and low-income communities in the region face barriers in casting their ballots.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County is moving back to a mostly paper ballot system for voting.

The St. Louis County Board of Elections unanimously voted Tuesday to shift toward using paper ballots and away from touch-screen voting machines. 

The elections board is moving forward with a $6.9 million contract with Hart InterCivic to provide new voting machines and software that primarily run a paper ballot system. The new apparatus is expected to be in place for the Nov. 5 election. 

A small number of touch-screen machines — one per polling station — will continue to be available for people with disabilities, said election board chair Sharon Buchanan-McClure. 

The number of machines purchased and other details were unclear, since the contract was not immediately provided Tuesday. 

The board held a closed-door meeting to discuss its voting machine options. Then, it opened the meeting to take the vote on the contract without any public discussion about its decision.  

The paper ballot method should ease some of the county’s recent election day difficulties. It will allow ballots to be printed “on demand” at polling places, Buchanan-McClure said. Officials hope that function will make it easier for the county to avoid running out of ballots or giving out the wrong ballots to voters — problems in recent years. 

A handful of political activists and advocates have also been putting pressure on the county for years to switch to a mostly paper ballot system. They had gone so far as to ask the Missouri General Assembly to consider banning touch-screen voting machines like the ones the county has been using. They consider electronic voting to be insecure and unreliable.  

“They’re happy because they get the ballot on demand. We’re happy because we get hand-marked paper ballots,” said Cynthia Richards, after the county’s board vote for a paper ballot system. “I mean, it couldn’t have come out any better.” 

Richards is a member of Missouri's Coalition for Transparent and Secure Elections, a nonpartisan group that fights the use of electronic election ballots. 

The county had considered voting-machine bids from three firms. The lowest bid was not selected, but Hart Intercivic provided the widest range of services, Buchanan-McClure said. 

“We picked what we would consider the best product,” she said. “If we are talking about comparable equipment, they were the lowest bidder.” 

The $6.9 million price tag is also about $3 million less than the county paid for its old voting system, Buchanan-McClure said. 

A system that primarily makes use of paper ballots requires fewer machines and therefore is less expensive. The new voting system replaces machines that are 13 years old and a software system that is about two decades old, she said. 

The cost of the new system will primarily be covered by the election board. It has set aside approximately $4 million to help purchase the system. The county will also use fees it charges municipalities for staging elections to cover the cost, said Eric Fey, St. Louis County’s Democratic elections director. 

Fey said the election board can bill localities up to 5% of the total cost of an election. That money will be used to help pay for the new machines and software, he said.  The Missouri Secretary of State’s office has given the county a little over $160,000 to help cover the costs. 

The elections board had started to get rid of the county’s old machines a few weeks ago — before the new equipment was purchased. It had to make room in its warehouse for the new machines, said Rick Stream, the county’s Republican elections director

If St. Louis County had waited to start purging the old voting machines from its system until after the new contract had been approved, it would have run out of time to make space for the new equipment, Stream said. It takes several weeks to dispose of old voting machines. 

Stream also said the county had taken precautionary measures to ensure that machines would be available for the next election.

The county has kept enough of the old machines to use in the November contest, which is a smaller election. If something were to go wrong with the new contract, the county could rely on the old voting machines, he said.  

Correction: The name of the company receiving the voting machine contract is Hart InterCivic. St. Louis Public Radio originally called the company Hart InterCivic eSlate. 

Follow Julie O’Donoghue on Twitter at @jsodonoghue

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