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Counties Await State Funds For New Voting Systems

Ben Bradford / Capital Public Radio

Sacramento County bought 87 pallets of new voting equipment before the 2018 elections.

Ben Bradford / Capital Public Radio

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing millions of dollars for an upgrade of old voting machines, long sought by counties. The money would come as counties transition to a much cheaper voting system, mostly based on mail-in ballots.

In a large warehouse at the Sacramento County voting head office, staff are carting, unloading and scanning in 87 pallets of equipment, including new color printers and touch screens for voters with disabilities. In another aisle, county Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine lifts the leather cover off a hulking, gray hunk of metal, the current equipment.

“This is the machine that would, any ballots that came back in by mail, we would count them on this,” LaVine says. “This would jam. This started shredding ballots.”

Last election, Sacramento County reported 95 incidents related to voting machine malfunctions, including paper jams, impromptu restarts and sudden losses of power, according to the California Secretary of State’s Office. That’s not an anomaly. The last major replacement of voting machines in the state occurred after the 2000 election, so many counties run servers on outdated operating systems no longer supported by Microsoft and use zip drives to transfer files.

Los Angeles still uses a punch card system from the 1960s. Gov. Brown’s budget proposes allocating $134 million to reimburse counties for half the cost of upgrading.

It comes in a year when this will cost less. Many counties are transitioning to a new, largely vote-by-mail system that will rely on just a few voting centers, rather than many polling sites all needing their own pallets of equipment. 

Sacramento County approved $4 million for the new voting machines, rather than the $8 million it might otherwise have required. Should lawmakers approve the funding in next year's budget, the county could seek reimbursement for half the cost.

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