Louisiana voting machine search halted amid vendor complaint

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s search for new voting machines was temporarily on hold Saturday after one of the vendors trying to compete for the work complained the contractor solicitation was drawn too narrowly and could sideline it and other qualified voting technology firms.

Louisiana’s chief procurement officer Paula Tregre, whose office in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration oversees the bidding process, stalled the solicitation for vendors seeking the voting machine contract on Friday evening after receiving a complaint from Hart InterCivic.

It wasn’t immediately clear when the contractor search would resume, if the entire solicitation would have to be rewritten or what other action might be taken.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican who is the state’s top elections official, suggested the decision to halt his office’s search was improper and unnecessary. The early disruption in Louisiana’s effort to shop for voting machines brought reminders of the secretary of state’s failed attempt in 2018 to replace its 10,000 early voting and Election Day equipment.

Texas-based Hart InterCivic CEO Julie Mathis said several of the secretary of state’s requirements for contractors — including the type of voting system sought, the machines’ screen size and the phased approach to rolling out new machines — could “arbitrarily prevent the state from seeing all the best options available.”

“We hoped the new solicitation would err on the side of inclusivity to ensure the state has the opportunity to evaluate all the best election systems available,” Mathis wrote in a Friday letter to Tregre and Ardoin.

Upon receipt of the letter, Tregre responded with a “stay of solicitation” stopping the bid process. Tregre wrote that she was treating Hart InterCivic’s complaint as an official protest under the law.

Mathis replied in a Friday email that the company hadn’t intended to “invoke a protest,” but rather to “open a dialogue.” But company spokesman Steven Sockwell on Saturday applauded Tregre’s approach.

“The state’s decision to stay the process appears to be a strong validation of the questions we raised,” Sockwell said in a statement. “We’re encouraged by the state’s quick action to briefly pause the solicitation, and look forward to hearing its response to our specific questions on requirements in the (bid solicitation) that may be exclusionary.”

Ardoin disagreed with Tregre’s decision.

In a statement, Ardoin spokesperson Tyler Brey called the temporary hold “premature at best” and said it appears to violate bid solicitation requirements for a question-and-answer period with interested vendors.

“Lawful inquiries about the (request for proposals) by a potential bidder are no basis for halting this important process,” Brey said. He said the bid solicitation “was developed in close coordination with the Office of State Procurement and abides by all state laws, including both the election code and the procurement code.”

Ardoin launched his search for a voting machine vendor on Jan. 27. Bids from companies interested in the contract were supposed to be due at the end of March. Louisiana’s contract is estimated to be worth up to $100 million. Ardoin wants to have the first new early voting machines in some parishes by the spring 2022 elections.

Allegations of improper bid handling derailed a previous effort to replace the decades-old equipment in 2018.

The secretary of state’s office started looking for a contractor in March 2018 under Ardoin’s predecessor, Tom Schedler. Colorado-based Dominion Voting Systems was chosen out of three companies that bid for the work. But the Edwards’ administration voided the contract award to the company months later amid accusations from a competing bidder that the secretary of state’s office attempted to manipulate the outcome.

In response to that 2018 protest filed by Election Systems and Software, Tregre said the secretary of state’s office didn’t follow legal requirements in choosing the winning vendor. Ardoin and Dominion disagreed, but the company didn’t dispute the matter in court.


Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.