Louisiana ends search for new voting machines amid criticism

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In this Sept. 8, 2020 photo, voting booths are kept socially distant at the Chesterfield, N.H. polling site. A majority of President Donald Trump’s supporters plan to cast their ballot on Election Day, while about half of Joe Biden’s backers plan to vote by mail. That’s according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that finds 54% of voters say they will vote before polls open on Nov. 3. (Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s secretary of state decided Wednesday to shelve his search for new voting machines after a barrage of complaints about the bid process from election technology companies, the head of a state Senate oversight committee and his fellow Republicans.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin sent a letter to Paula Tregre, Louisiana’s chief procurement officer, announcing his decision, asking her to remove the bid solicitation from a state website and requesting that she dismiss protests filed by two companies that wanted to seek the work.

“I am withdrawing the (request for proposals) to spend the next few months seeking to undo the damage to voter confidence done by those who willfully spread misinformation and disinformation,” Ardoin said in a statement.

In his pointed letter to Tregre and a follow-up statement, the Republican secretary of state accused Tregre of mishandling complaints from the vendors about the bid process, defended his search effort and suggested critics were using national concerns about election integrity to derail needed replacement voting machines.

“We cannot let election administration become just another political football for politicians or voting machine vendors to kick around, without any understanding or concern for the consequences,” he said.

Ardoin said he’ll redo the search in the future, though he gave no date for that plan.

It’s the second time the secretary of state has jettisoned his effort to replace 10,000 Election Day and early voting machines, many of which are decades old. Ardoin also ran into problems with a previous effort in 2018.

He said his decision to scrap the search for contractors that he began in January came after talks with Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, Republicans who backed Ardoin’s decision to end the bid solicitation.

“Louisiana elections are some of the most safe and secure elections in the United States and giving more oversight to the process will only strengthen that,” Schexnayder said in a statement released by Ardoin’s office.

Cortez said the decision “will bring an opportunity for full transparency.”

The lucrative contract was estimated to be worth up to $100 million.

Because of allegations of improper bid handling three years ago, Ardoin already was going to face heightened interest as he sought a new voting system. But the search also came during a national debate over the handling of the presidential election and amid baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud by former President Donald Trump and his supporters.

The former president’s backers in Louisiana have suggested new machines could leave the state’s elections more vulnerable to hacking. They’ve complained the open bid process would allow Louisiana’s current voting machine vendor, Dominion Voting Systems, to seek a new contract. Trump supporters suggest that Dominion’s machines were somehow to blame for Trump’s loss in key swing states — but not his victory in Louisiana. Colorado-based Dominion has sued several high-profile figures nationally for spreading the allegations.

Meanwhile, the head of the Senate’s elections oversight committee, Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, said Ardoin rushed into the shopping process too quickly, and she called on him last week to shelve the effort.

“For voters to trust our election system, we must conduct a thorough, transparent and open process similar to what other states have followed. I look forward to restarting this process and providing the government oversight and public input that was so badly missing from the two previous failed attempts,” Hewitt said in a statement Wednesday.

The search for voting machines already had been on hold while Tregre reviewed complaints from two interested bidders, Texas-based Hart InterCivic and Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software, known as ES&S. They accused Ardoin of drawing the search terms too narrowly and trying to manipulate the bid process to benefit Dominion.

Ardoin defended the search terms as fair. In his letter to Tregre, he said her decision to temporarily stall the replacement work while reviewing the protests has caused scheduling problems for his office and could drag out disputes indefinitely before vendors can even offer proposals.

The secretary of state said canceling the machine replacement effort will give his office time to respond to concerns from lawmakers and the public, while also working on any needed changes to clarify state law regarding the voting systems that are allowed in Louisiana.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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