Louisiana's elections will be getting a face-lift over the next few years, with plans underway to replace the state's decade-old bulky voting machines with sleeker, smaller equipment and beefed-up technology.
The request seeking proposals from contractors for new voting machines went out this week, with bids due May 1. The solicitation went out as Secretary of State Tom Schedler learned Louisiana is getting a nearly $6 million federal grant to cover a portion of the costs.
The state last purchased voting equipment in 2005. This time, Louisiana will be shopping for new equipment as concerns about cybersecurity threats are heightened and hacking worries have consumed election discussions — and as the state is struggling with repeated financial problems.
Schedler said Louisiana's nearly 10,000 early and Election Day voting machines are antiquated, with spare parts dwindling and no longer manufactured.
"We've been very fortunate to date to not have any problems. The problem we anticipate is that as the inventory of spare parts deteriorates, there will be a point in time where we won't have enough parts to repair the machines," he said. "The day of reckoning is coming."
The Secretary of State's Office is looking for a touch-screen-style system, in line with the pop-up type of machines that Louisiana uses in its early voting, placed on stands or tables. Schedler said they'll be easier to store and to move than the huge machines Louisiana currently uses on election days.
The machines are expected to provide a voter-verified paper receipt for any postelection recounts or audits that might be needed, according to Schedler's office.
Although Schedler said the request for proposals is wide open, he likely won't be interested in anything that has a Wi-Fi or other internet connection that he said could make election equipment more vulnerable to hackers. He considers the lack of an internet connection in Louisiana's current voting machines "one of the strengths of the system."
Louisiana was not among the 21 states where the U.S. Homeland Security Department said Russian agents targeted election systems ahead of the 2016 general election. But Schedler said Louisiana has upped its security and continues to look for system improvements.
"We are constantly changing codes and putting up blocks," he said.
He hopes to have the voting machine contract awarded by June 30 and all the equipment replaced, through a phased-in process, by 2020.
But the price tag is a hefty one.
Schedler estimates the entire replacement project, complete with new equipment and computer software, will cost between $40 million and $60 million. With the federal grant, the state has about $8 million allocated so far. Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed adding another $3 million to the project in next year's budget, if lawmakers agree.
The federal dollars announced this week will be a big boost to the efforts, and he hopes more federal money may follow. But Schedler will be asking lawmakers to allocate tens of millions of additional dollars over the next two years amid continued budget woes.
"I've brought this subject up in every budget meeting for years," Schedler said. "It's a big number. But I guess my response to everybody on that is, 'Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to have elections?'"