No plans to revive Louisiana's voting machine search soon

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin told lawmakers Thursday that he won’t soon restart Louisiana’s work to upgrade its voting technology, after two prior efforts to replace thousands of voting machines were scrapped amid controversy.

Ardoin, the Republican who oversees Louisiana’s elections, shelved the latest voting machine replacement attempt in March after facing widespread complaints from election technology firms, the leader of a state Senate oversight committee and other Republicans. Lawmakers will consider changing the voting machine selection process in their upcoming legislative session.

While Ardoin defended his agency’s handling of the contractor search, he told the House Appropriations Committee that he pulled back the bid solicitation process after consultation with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, both Republicans.

“There is no intent to go out for another (request for proposals) anytime soon?” asked Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, a Houma Republican, during a hearing on Ardoin’s budget for next year.

“No,” Ardoin replied.

He offered no timeline for when he might attempt to replace the state’s 10,000 machines, many of which are decades old.

In the meantime, the secretary of state’s office continues to pay its current voting machine vendor, Dominion Voting Systems, to provide election technology — despite complaints from some Republicans who raised specific objections about Dominion during the voting machine search.

In the current financial year, Louisiana paid Dominion $1.2 million from July through March for machine maintenance, leasing of early voting equipment and election supplies, according to Ardoin’s office. Documents provided to The Associated Press in response to a records request show regular payments to Dominion multiple times a month for voting machine parts, software, equipment warranties and support services.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump who repeat baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud suggest that Dominion is to blame for Trump’s loss in key swing states, though not his victory in Louisiana. Dominion has sued several high-profile figures nationally for spreading the allegations.

No one brought up the allegations in Thursday’s House committee hearing.

But Republican Rep. Bill Wheat, of Ponchatoula, said the state needs to “give confidence to folks in Louisiana” that the state’s election processes are sound.

Ardoin said Louisiana ran its recent elections — including the high-profile 2020 presidential competition — amid a pandemic and after multiple hurricanes without controversy and with “no major complaints.”

Though he’s defended Louisiana’s elections processes, Ardoin also announced that he has set up a 15-member election integrity commission to review existing procedures and offer suggestions for improving confidence in elections and improving voter experiences.

Republican lawmakers are proposing in the session that starts Monday to rework the requirements for buying or leasing voting systems, to give themselves more oversight and to change the types of machines allowed. One of the bills is sponsored by Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt, the election oversight committee chair who criticized Ardoin’s approach as too rushed and too insular.

The contract for new voting machines is estimated to be worth up to $100 million.

The voting machine replacement effort faced intense scrutiny, coming after a previous 2018 search for a new voting system fell apart amid allegations of improper bid handling and amid a national spotlight on the handling of elections after the 2020 presidential competition.

Before Ardoin canceled the bid solicitation, his search for voting machines already had been on hold while Louisiana’s chief procurement officer reviewed complaints from two interested bidders, Hart InterCivic and Election Systems and Software.

The companies accused Ardoin of drawing the search terms too narrowly and trying to manipulate the bid process to benefit Dominion. Ardoin denied the allegations, defending the search as fair.

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