FREEPORT — While the state is gathering information to implement a uniform voting system by the end of this year, some town officials are questioning the necessity of such a change.
Freeport Town Council Chairman Rich DeGrandpre said the notion to replace ballot machines that are working fine is “incredibly frustrating.”
“The problem with the state of Maine is in its zeal to save them more money, they are making smaller municipalities spend more,” he said. “We are all struggling to keep our employees and save programs, and here we have to spend money on new voting machines.”
Clerks and town election officials have been encouraged by the Department of Corporations, Elections and Commissions to include funds for replacement voting machines into the fiscal 2009 budget. While federal grant money may become available to help pay for the machines, there is no certainty when and how much will be allocated.
Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said the need to make the voting and ballot tabulation process uniform became evident in 2007 when it was realized certain machines would not be manufactured any longer.
Last year there were four major types of optical voting machines used in Maine. But now, one machine is obsolete, the memory card of another machine will no longer be manufactured, and vendors will no longer support a third machine.
Flynn said the state will research newer equipment and request information from vendors, and would like to have changes implemented by November.
“There is value in having a uniform system,” she said. “With a statewide system, we will be able to get better prices for machine services and support, equipment, instructional posters and training for clerks.”
She said the state could save a significant amount by changing the type of paper used to print ballots. Last November she said it cost $400,000 to print ballots for the state. She also said using one type of machine statewide would save time by reducing the need to create many ballots on different paper for each type of machine.
Only about 25 percent, or 125 of 500 municipalities, use optical scanning machines. But it is possible they would all have to be replaced with an updated version and new software.
“There are no absolutes yet, but I hope and expect there to be some benefit in terms of time and decrease in costs,” Flynn said. “Our goal is to assist municipalities and pay for the lion’s share of the cost.”
In Portland, City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the preliminary municipal budget includes funds for the replacement of 15 AccuVote machines at $8,000 a piece. She said they were purchased in 2004. Freeport Town Clerk Beverly Curry said she has requested $22,500 in the Capitol Improvements Program budget for four new voting machines.
She said the town uses the AccuVote voting machines purchased seven years ago at a cost of about $6,500 each.
“I love my machine,” Curry said. “It is working fine and I have no complaints.”
Curry said she is aware that the state is trying to get money to pay for the equipment, but said she can’t assume all four machines will be replaced.
“I can’t run an election for 6,000 people on one machine,” she said. “It is not safe to assume they will replace all four machines. I can’t gamble with that.”
Susan Mooney, South Portland city clerk, said she did not request any money to be added to the budget for voting machines this year.
South Portland has seven AccuVote machines that were purchased around 2000. Mooney said she has not experienced many problems with the machines.
“I personally do not think it will happen this year,” she said. “There are just too many hurdles.”
South Portland has nearly 18,000 registered voters, but Mooney said for smaller special elections, she typcially counts ballots by hand.
“If we absolutely have to find the money for new machines, we’ll make it happen,” she said. “But I don’t think it will come to that.”
Brunswick Town Clerk Fran Smith said she has included $48,000 in the CIP budget for the replacement of eight optical voting machines.
“We are different from other communities in that we need to replace the machines anyway,” she said. “The machines count wonderfully, but after about 12 years of wear and tear, we need to replace them.”
In addition, Smith said vendors will no longer service the town’s machines.
“Either way, we will have a machine for the November election,” she said. “We won’t be hand-counting this year.”
There are about 15,000 registered voters in Brunswick.
Flynn said a few town councilors and selectmen have expressed concern over the timing of the upgrades. But she said there is no requirement to purchase new equipment and software at this time.
As of now, the Secretary of State’s office is in the preliminary stages of a detailed process of gathering information from ballot tabulation machine vendors throughout the country. The vendors have had more than a month to submit initial information to the state, according to Flynn, which includes dozens, if not hundreds, of requirements. The information is due March 17.
Municipalities will be able to use their current machines for local elections until the state finds new equipment, but state elections will need to be consistent by November.
“At this point it is a mystery what the state will provide to municipalities,” Curry said. “We are in a situation right now that is uncomfortable, as there is not a lot of extra money around.”