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Analysis: Louisiana to have new approach for voting machines

July 11, 2021 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Republican lawmakers have agreed to rework Louisiana’s method for selecting its next voting system, but the new law isn’t likely to end disputes over what technology to select and how to do the shopping.

The new process, worked out in a bill by Senate GOP leader Sharon Hewitt, adds layers of legislative oversight and technical analysis, allows for more public input and requires an auditable paper trail for the voting system that can be chosen by Ardoin, the Republican who oversees elections in the state.

Two recent efforts from the secretary of state’s office to replace Louisiana’s 10,000-plus voting machines collapsed in controversy. That has left the state continuing to scavenge for parts to keep some machines, many of which are decades-old, up and running properly.

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Lawmakers seem to largely agree that a new voting system is needed. But on election issues, there’s simply no way to satisfy everyone.

The changes included in Hewitt’s legislation won’t address all the disparate criticisms from supporters of former President Donald Trump who believe his baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Already, some Republicans criticized the new law as doing too little to address their concerns about hacking and voter integrity. Some Trump supporters want to block Louisiana’s current voting machine vendor, Dominion Voting Systems, from participating in an open bid process for the new multimillion-dollar contract. Trump backers suggest Dominion is somehow to blame for Trump’s loss in key swing states, though not his victory in Louisiana. Dominion has sued several high-profile figures for spreading the allegations.

Meanwhile, Democrats — most of whom opposed Hewitt’s bill — questioned the need for the changes included in the law, noting that Ardoin vehemently defends Louisiana’s elections system as safe.

Hewitt’s bill won passage with a 69-34 House vote and 27-10 Senate vote in the final minutes of the regular legislative session. Edwards, a Democrat, announced he signed it into law July 2.

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“This common-sense legislation allows our state to shift from our outdated, electronic voting system to an auditable, paper ballot system to ensure that every Louisiana vote cast is secure and tabulated accurately,” Hewitt said in a statement. “It also guarantees public input, transparency and legislative oversight into a bid process that has seen trouble in the past.”

The voting machine replacement work will start with a new 13-member commission that includes lawmakers, elections experts, a cybersecurity expert and others to analyze and make recommendations about the type of voting system that should be bought or leased. The commission will have to hold open, public meetings.

Commission members remain to be named. Its first public meeting must be held by Sept. 1. The panel is required to make its voting system recommendations by Jan. 31. The secretary of state must take “into consideration” those recommendations when putting out its bid solicitation for a new contractor.

Already there seems to be confusion about exactly what voting system the bill requires.

Louisiana’s new voting system will have to produce an “auditable voter-verified paper record,” unlike the state’s current machines. But that doesn’t mean the state is locked into a hand-marked paper ballot dropped into a box without technology involved.

Instead, the state could use a ballot-marking digital voting machine that prints a paper receipt to review and confirm a voter’s selections, paper ballots that are scanned into a digital system to record the votes or some other machine-based method with a paper trail.

The legislation mandates that Louisiana’s voting system can’t connect to the internet, already the practice today in the secretary of state’s office.

Ardoin ended his last voting machine replacement attempt in March after facing widespread complaints from election technology firms, Hewitt and other Republicans about how the search was handled. A previous 2018 search fell apart amid allegations the secretary of state’s office didn’t follow legal requirements for the bid process and tried to manipulate the outcome to benefit Dominion.

Even with the new law, it seems unlikely the next effort to replace Louisiana’s voting machines will proceed smoothly, with Ardoin saying at one legislative hearing: “The paranoia because of the national narrative is out of control.”

The secretary of state separately created an election integrity commission to make recommendations for improving Louisiana’s voting processes and voter confidence.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.