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Ohioans may have to dig deep to cover cost of new voting machines

Across Ohio, counties are coming up with innovative ways to repair the state’s aging voting machines, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to replace.

In Darke County, an elections worker bought small springs from a farm supply store that he used to hold together a flap on voting machines. In Montgomery County, spare parts are cannibalized from dead machines and pirated from other counties to keep units limping along. And in Clark County, maintenance costs keep climbing on machines built long before anyone held an iPhone.

“It’s time for a replacement,” said state Sen. Frank LaRose, a Hudson Republican who is sponsoring a bill that will spend somewhere between $90 million and $118 million on new voting machines for all 88 Ohio counties.

Ohio purchased most of the current voting machines in 2005 and 2006 with nearly $115 million in federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money. HAVA passed after the 2000 presidential election exposed the critical need for upgrades.

The 2,300 touch-screen voting machines used in Montgomery County were built in 2003 using “technology from the Blackberry days,” said Jan Kelly, Board of Elections director.

“We’ve been able to recycle parts from old machines onto existing machines, but we’re running out of those parts,” she said. “We’re at the end of the life.”

Clark County, which has a paper ballot system, could limp through the 2020 election with the county’s 111 outdated devices that optically scan and tally votes, said Jason Baker, Board of Elections director.

“We can, but we shouldn’t,” Baker said. “We don’t want to go into another presidential primary election on brand new equipment.”

LaRose, who is running against Democrat Kathleen Clyde of Kent for secretary of state in the 2018 election, is hammering out details on a pot of money for new machines and proscribe how much each county will receive in state funds.

His original bill called for the state paying 80 percent while counties pick up 20 percent of the tab. The bill is likely going to be amended to carve out a set amount of money for the machines and a formula for distribution based on county size and number of registered voters, he said.

Secretary of Sate Jon Husted pitched the idea that the state pick up 100 percent of the cost of purchasing machines as long as the counties pick the lowest-cost systems.

“If they want to spend more on them, they can do that but we believe we can do this for a reasonable price for replacing all the voting machines across the state. That way we will have them purchased in 2018, tested in 2019 and ready to go for the 2020 presidential election,” Husted said.

While federal money was used to purchase the bulk of machines more than a decade ago, Husted said Ohio won’t wait for federal funds to be approved. Congress is sitting on three bipartisan bills that address election integrity issues, including money to upgrade voting equipment.

Related: Husted wants new voting machines in every county in Ohio

The County Commissioners Association of Ohio and Ohio Association of Elections Officials want the state to pick up 85 percent of the purchase costs and note that when a decade of operations costs are figured into the equation, it will turn out to be a 50-50 split between the state and counties.

There are three systems: optical scan with a paper back-up, DRE machines and hybrids that include touch screens that use optical scanners for counting. If all counties selected optical scan, purchase costs would total $116 million. The price jumps to $182 million for DRE and $267 million for hybrids, according to the associations.

Currently about half the counties use optical scan equipment, including Clark, Champaign, Warren and Preble counties. The other half use electronic touchscreen equipment with memory cards and a paper record of votes. Locally, Montgomery, Greene, Butler, Miami and Darke counties use electronic touchscreen machines.

Elections officials in Clark County say it could cost roughly $1.2 million to replace current equipment; in Montgomery County, $8 million.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now depending on what the legislature does,” Kelly said.

Ohio isn’t alone in the need to replace voting machines. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reported that 229 officials in 33 states said they need to replace their machines by 2020 — and most lacked enough money to do so.

Baker said it’s clear counties will be footing more of the future costs for keeping voting technology updated. Many are saving funds to that end, but some like Clark County require a boost.

“Right now we are not sitting pretty like some other counties,” he said. “I think we just need help this one time from the state to get over the hump and make it happen.”

While Ohio officials look to replace aging voting machines, the nation’s top intelligence officials are warning that Russians are already taking steps to interfere in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Related: U.S. intelligence officials see signs of Russian meddling in 2018 midterms

These warnings, delivered earlier this month to the Senate intelligence committee, come after intelligence agencies reported that the Russians meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

“It’s really important that people understand that none of our voting equipment or our tabulation equipment are connected to the Internet in anyway,” Husted said. “So, it cannot be hacked.”

Voter registration rolls are online but are backed up daily, which limits the opportunity to corrupt that data, Husted said. “You should have a great deal of confidence. The system we have in Ohio is solid and safe.”

Related: Hacking the ballot: How safe is your vote?

Related: Did Russians target Ohio voting machines?

A Dayton Daily News investigation in September 2016 found that Ohio officials at both the county and state level reported no signs of attempted incursions into elections systems, such as voter registration databases, that other states experienced earlier that year. They also saw no efforts to compromise voting systems.

On top of concern about Russian interference, in 2017, President Donald Trump created a commission to investigate alleged voter fraud in the 2016 elections, claiming that 3- to 5-million people voted illegally. He disbanded the commission in January 2018.

Uncertainty over elections appears to be eroding confidence in the system.

An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released this month found 79 percent of Americans are worried the country’s voting systems could be open to hacking.

While officials in some states are upset that federal authorities aren’t sharing security threat information with them quickly enough, Husted said he has no beef with the feds. “We have over the last several years been in regular contact with Homeland Security and had our system tested by the National Guard and many other folks. I have gone through the security clearance process so that I can have access up to secret information from Homeland Security on this issue…to make sure that we can be fully informed with every potential threat that exists,” Husted said. “We are connected with Homeland Security on a regular basis to make sure that happens.”

Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.

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