Louisiana’s top elections official, Kyle Ardoin, has known for years the state needed to replace its fleet of aging voting machines. After a previous effort to do so in 2018 was rejected, he officially began the quest again in January, seeking a vendor for the potentially $100 million contract.

But the new effort coincided with a wave of baseless allegations against one of the three bidders, Dominion Voting Systems, that took hold in right-wing media in the wake of Donald Trump’s election loss in November.

At the same time, the two other companies seeking the work halted the process by filing official protests of the plan. And Republican state lawmakers, many of whom were inundated with calls from constituents demanding the state not hire Dominion, slowed the process down, seeking more oversight and public hearings on the contract.

As pressure mounted, Ardoin faced the prospect of failing to get approval from the legislative budget committee whose OK he needed. Last week, he abandoned the effort.

Ardoin said he’s now setting out to dispel misinformation about the state’s election system before restarting the bid.

“I think unfortunately those folks who are rooted deep in conspiracy theories may not accept what we provide to them in terms of transparency,” Ardoin said in an interview. “But at the same time it's gotten more folks involved in the process, asking questions. And it is our job to answer these questions and to provide evidence of what we're doing right.

"Now it's up to the Legislature to determine the future of the election system in Louisiana and what we can afford and where we're going to head. And I'll be glad to participate in that discussion."

The saga has revealed the extent that election issues – including concerns with no basis in reality – have infected politics in Louisiana, a state Trump carried easily in 2020.

It has also produced a public spat between Ardoin and state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Republican who leads the influential Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee and who is often mentioned as a potential candidate for governor in 2023.

Republican activists and voters in Louisiana who believe in the unfounded allegations that Dominion helped engineer a huge vote-switching scheme have also made their voices heard since the election. Lawmakers and even the Office of State Procurement have received calls and emails from constituents demanding Dominion not be selected.

Lenar Whitney, the Republican National Committeewoman for Louisiana, has promoted conspiracy theories about Dominion on her Facebook page and rallied fellow “patriots” to pressure Ardoin to abandon the bid for new machines. She pointedly questioned Ardoin about the contract during a Republican women’s meeting in Baton Rouge recently. On Feb. 18, she announced she had been tapped by RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel to serve on an “election integrity committee.”

A mysterious billboard popped up on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge recently telling people to call their legislator about the “waste” in the voting machine contract. The conservative radio host Jeff Crouere, who writes an occasional column in this newspaper, in early February cut an ad urging people to call Ardoin’s office about the machines.

“Tell Kyle we don’t want a Dominion voting machine lawsuit here like they had in Georgia,” Crouere said in the spot, which he said was paid for by a private citizen. “Call Kyle and tell him to get honest voting machines.”

Ironically, Louisiana already uses Dominion machines and has for years. In fact, the delay in the contract may ensure that the state will continue to use Dominion machines for longer. Ardoin pointed that out in a sharply worded letter to Hewitt.

“Please know that your continued quest to place yourself into this discussion has now resulted in Louisiana’s prolonged use of its current inventory of Dominion voting machines for election day and early voting,” Ardoin wrote in the letter released Friday. “Now that the RFP has been terminated, our agency has been forced to continue with Dominion as a vendor in advance of any meaningful work to determine a path forward.”

Hewitt has homed in on what she sees as a lack of transparency in the bid for new machines, and accused Ardoin of rushing into the process without legislative oversight. In her latest response to Ardoin, on Friday, she said, “I can understand if the secretary is embarrassed, but I've been crystal clear from the beginning. This process must be transparent and thorough.”

Ardoin has repeatedly said Louisiana had smooth elections in 2020, even after the courts stepped in to resolve a partisan battle over mail-in voting during the pandemic.

At the same time, many of the roughly 9,500 election day machines used statewide are approaching obsolescence, he said. Some date to 1995, and others were built in 2005. That increases the risk they could fail because of old age.

The state also leases 780 touch-screen machines from Dominion. That's the type of equipment Ardoin said the state is looking to purchase from whatever vendor wins the contract.

Voting experts have said states should have a paper trail in their machines, something Ardoin sought to do in the new contract.

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Conspiracy theories about Dominion aren’t the only thing that tangled up the voting machine contract.

Dominion and two other voting companies – Election Systems & Software and Hart InterCivic – expressed interest in the new contract. Both Election Systems and Hart complained the request for proposals, called RFP, released by Ardoin was so narrowly tailored that they couldn’t compete, and Dominion was sure to win. The firms filed lengthy correspondence with the Office of State Procurement that serves as referee in such bids.

Ardoin said he intended to address some of their concerns through an addendum. But before he could, the two firms filed protests with Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne’s office, halting the process.

Hewitt had tried to hold a joint committee hearing about the process before Ardoin launched the solicitation, but delays related to weather and the pandemic prevented them. In late February, she fired off a pointed letter to Ardoin accusing him of “sidestepping input” from the public, lawmakers and others and asking him to cancel the bid.

While Dominion has been in the national news the most, Hewitt said in an interview she isn’t against any one company and doesn’t want to rehash allegations of fraud in other states.

“I think we have to have a fair process,” Hewitt said. “I don’t know if everything that’s been said about Dominion is true. I suspect a lot of it is false. ... I don’t think I’m going to let accusations in other states influence how we move forward in Louisiana.”

Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said he has received more calls recently from constituents about Dominion than about the state budget or tax reform, the big topic of discussion at the State Capitol for the upcoming session. He said the allegations about Dominion, “actual or not,” influenced the process, as lawmakers were inundated with calls from constituents worried about the company. Republicans hold the majority on the budget committee that needs to sign off on Ardoin’s contract for new machines.

But lawmakers were looking for oversight even before the Dominion allegations became a cause célèbre for some Republican activists.

Last year, before the 2020 presidential election, Zeringue helped put a provision in the state budget that required the voting contract to get approval from the joint budget committee. That was aimed at giving lawmakers oversight in the wake of a previous bid for new machines in 2018, which was tossed out after Edwards’ administration found flaws in Ardoin’s selection of Dominion.

“There’s no doubt the presidential election was a factor, but it was even before that that was an issue,” he said.

Dominion CEO John Poulos said in a statement that the firm understands Ardoin’s decision to cancel the request for proposals.

“Unfortunately, months of baseless allegations of election fraud have adversely affected the state's procurement process, creating an untenable environment for fact-based deliberation,” Poulos said. “We stand ready today to provide a voting system solution that meets Louisiana’s current and evolving standards. We pledge to continue our commitment to offering innovative, reliable election technology tailored to individual states' requirements.”

Dominion has been trying to rehabilitate its image in the wake of the election, filing defamation lawsuits against Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and the founder and CEO of MyPillow Mike Lindell for falsely accusing the company of rigging the 2020 election.

But as the allegations about Dominion swirled, the firm also sought to fight back in Louisiana’s court of public opinion – specifically, the right-wing section.

During an ad break on the conservative Moon Griffon's radio show last month, a voice with a thick Southern accent explained that Dominion has been used in Louisiana for over two decades. Over a sleepy acoustic guitar riff, the man said Dominion’s machines do “one simple thing accurately and honestly: Help local elected officials count your votes.”

“Every single statewide official in Louisiana – Republican and Democrat – was elected using Dominion machines,” the ad said. “Using those same Dominion machines, President Trump won Louisiana with more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016.”

The company took out similar ads in The Advocate, and on the Hayride, a right-wing blog. The publisher of the Hayride posted an entire piece devoted to explaining to his readers why he took Dominion’s ad dollars. Dominion said it wanted to share facts about the company as “defamatory disinformation” is being spread.

Two days after Ardoin abandoned the latest bid for new machines, Crouere, the conservative radio host who voiced the ad urging people to call Ardoin about the contract, had Ardoin on his show.

Crouere peppered the secretary with questions about Dominion, saying there was “concern, big time” about the company.

Ardoin insisted he wasn’t “sticking up” for any one company and merely wants to get the best machines possible for the voters, which he intends to do through the request for proposals.

“Our elections turned into a political football,” Ardoin said. “And that’s not right.”

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