Back to the drawing board

Connecticut's wild ride on the path to a new voting system has come to a screeching halt. Until late December, the state had been racing toward purchasing new voting machines to satisfy the Jan. 1 deadline for HAVA or Help America Vote Act. This new law mandates, with accompanying funds, that every polling place have a voting system that allowed for private and independent voting access to the handicapped. Connecticut's plans to comply with the law came unraveled between late December and early January.

The majority of Connecticut municipalities are stocked with lever machines, equipment deemed non-compliant with HAVA. In September, the Elections Assistance Committee determined that lever voting machines did not meet HAVA requirements and could not be used. Thus, Connecticut was furiously pursuing a plan to replace the lever machines by purchasing new voting machines.

To meet the need for HAVA compliant machines, the state had solicited bids from voting machine vendors. Those who would be considered had to meet the following specific requirements: be federally and state certified, display a full face ballot and supply a voter-verified paper receipt or VVPR. A VVPR is a paper record that can be generated by the machine for voters to see.

Of the more than 50 vendors who expressed interest, seven vendors submitted proposals. Of those, only three appeared to meet the stringent requirements set forth by Connecticut. The three machines chosen were made by Danaher, Diebold and Avante.

Susan Bysiewicz, Connecticut Secretary of State, held a series of public demonstrations of the three finalists in November. At that time, UCONN conducted a survey of the public concerning their preferences about the future replacement. It was Bysiewicz's goal to finalize a contract with one vendor by January 1st. Based on the information Bysiewicz had gathered, she was poised to do business with Danaher.

Those plans were derailed Dec. 21 when Bysiewicz, learned that the Danaher machine chosen as a replacement was not federally certified as HAVA compliant. At the negotiating table, Danaher revealed that it had planned to apply for federal certification once the contract with Connecticut was signed. According to Bysiewicz, "Danaher misrepresented to our office that they had received federal certification."

In addition, neither of the other two vendors, Avante and Diebold, has been federally certified. "We canceled the procurement process because of lack of qualified bidders," explained Bysiewicz.

Bysiewicz has been particularly concerned about any penalties that might be imposed on the state should the HAVA deadline not be met. The Department of Justice or DOJ, the enforcement arm of the law, had indicated to other states that the deadline needed to be met. In the beginning of January, however, the DOJ sent a letter to the State's Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, which allayed some of the concerns. "The DOJ wants to work cooperatively with Connecticut," said Blumenthal.

Blumenthal also added he was "in discussion with the DOJ" concerning the possibility of continuing to use lever voting machines.

The apparent non-punitive attitude by the DOJ has given Connecticut some breathing space. Bysiewicz is planning on re-opening the search process in order to meet the mandates of HAVA. For 2006, however, Connecticut will still be using the lever machines.

As she readies to start this round, Bysiewicz has been "exploring other ways to consider other machines."

In this effort, Bysiewicz has sought help from the Attorney General. One of the difficulties for vendors of voting machines has been meeting the Connecticut requirement of displaying a full face ballot. Since only two states, Connecticut and New York, have this requirement, most companies don't manufacture machines that can be used by these two states.

At Bysiewicz's request, Blumenthal examined the statues and determined that there was no requirement in the statutes or regulations requiring a full-face ballot. This conclusion opens the door to many more vendors.

Many in the state were relieved to learn of Bysiewicz's decision. Richard Abate, President of ROVAC or Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut, said, "I'm very pleased that she has come to this decision."

ROVAC had expressed displeasure about the original plan to purchase one of the three machines chosen. In a statement, ROVAC took issue with Bysiewicz for several different reasons. To begin with, the public demonstrations did not include an optical scanner machine, although this was to be one of the options available to municipalities in the next election. ROVAC felt this was misleading to the public.

ROVAC also expressed concerns that training for election officials would not be adequate and that Connecticut statutes needed to be updated to accommodate the new machines.

Judy Beaudreau, the election admnistrator of ROVAC, said, "Hopefully, we'll (the Registrars) be more involved. HAVA is all about making sure the handicapped can use the machines and the Registrars can run the election."

"We were going down the wrong path. I was afraid we would have to pay for it later."

Bysiewicz wanted to assure the state that very little money was used for the original search. She pointed out, "We're saving more than $30 million."

Like other election officials, Bysiewicz is committed to complying with HAVA. "The reason for HAVA is to ensure that people with disabilities can vote privately and independently."