Conspiracies complicate Louisiana voting machine debate

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s need to replace its voting machines is undisputed.

They are very outdated – deployed in 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina – and do not produce paper ballots essential to ensure accurate election results.

What to do with them is another story.

The long-running drama includes past allegations of bid-rigging, voting machine companies citing patronage and a secretary of state failing to commit to a new system for the 2024 presidential election.

Local poll clerks are also concerned about the influence of conspiracy theorists who have peddled unfounded claims about voting equipment and been welcomed into the debate over new machines.

“It would be a travesty to let a minority of people with little or no experience in election administration destroy an exceptional process that has been painstakingly built over many, many years,” the parish clerk said. de Calcasieu, Lynn Jones, to state officials at a meeting. this summer. “And for us to throw it out the window because of unfounded theories is mind-boggling.”

Uncertainty plays out amid attacks on election integrity, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen of him and promoted by a network of his allies and supporters. Some of those same supporters have tried to convince election officials across the country that they should ditch the machines in favor of paper ballots and manual tallies.

Whatever success they’ve had so far has been mostly limited to GOP-dominated rural counties. But in Louisiana, a heavily Republican state that Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points, they managed to slot into an already delayed process of choosing a new statewide voting system.

Louisiana officials have been trying for at least four years to replace their outdated touchscreen voting machines. Although some counties in four other states still use the machines, Louisiana is the only one where they are in place statewide – around 10,000 in all.

The main problem with the machines, besides their age and the difficulty of finding replacement parts, is that votes are recorded electronically with no paper trail of each voter’s selections. This means that if a result is disputed, there are no individual ballots to review to ensure the result was correct. Under a new state lawLouisiana’s next voting system must have a paper trail of ballots so election results can be properly audited.

“The problem in Louisiana is that if someone claimed the voting machines were hacked, there would be no conclusive evidence to disprove that,” said Mark Lindeman, director of Verified Voting, which tracks use of the voting materials in the United States. . “That leaves it up to election officials to prove a negative result.”

Although poll clerks agree that the machines are outdated and that a paper record is necessary, the equipment does not appear to have caused major problems in recent years.

In 2018, the nation’s top homeland security and cybersecurity officials urged states to replace all remaining paperless voting systems to improve security and increase public trust. Congress allocated $805 million ahead of the 2020 election to help states pay for security upgrades, including new equipment.

Louisiana officials, in a 2018 report to the federal agency disbursing the money, said they planned to use the state’s share to cover the costs of a “new electronic voting system.” and noted that the state had already begun the procurement process.

But that same year, the contract was canceled due to allegations of bid-rigging. In 2021, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin suspended another replacement attempt after the process was challenged by voting machine companies who claimed favoritism for the state’s current provider, Dominion Voting Systems.

After the 2020 presidential election, Dominion was ensnared by a web of conspiracy theories pushed by Trump and his allies claiming their voting machines were rigged to steal the election. The company pushed back, filing libel suits against conservative news outlets and Trump allies, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

The false allegations have taken root in conservative communities, where local authorities have come under pressure to stop using computer equipment to cast and count ballots. Almost two years after the last presidential election, no evidence of any widespread fraud or tampering with voting machines has surfaced, and the courts have dismissed dozens of court cases filed by Trump and his allies.

Last December, Phil Waldron – a retired army colonel who released a PowerPoint presentation offering suggestions on how to cancel the 2020 election – was invited to speak before the commission. responsible for recommending the new voting system for Louisiana. Waldron gave a 90-minute presentation focused on manually counting paper ballots, according to The Washington Post.

More recently, Lindell, one of the most prominent proponents of abandoning voting machines and counting every ballot hand, traveled to Baton Rouge to testify before the same commission.

At a June meeting on Capitol Hill, Ardoin set aside rules limiting public testimony to three minutes per person so Lindell could address the commission at length. During her 17-minute address, Lindell detailed her national quest against “corrupt” voting systems and “stolen” elections.

“We lose everything if we keep pushing even one machine forward,” Lindell told the commission. He went on to describe Louisiana as “the tip of the spear” in its efforts to end the use of voting machines across the country.

At the meeting, several clerks said they opposed what Lindell was advocating – that each voter fill out a ballot and each ballot be counted by hand, a process that would involve tens of thousands of ballots. in the most populated counties.

“Don’t confuse not wanting to go back to pen and paper with not wanting to have a verifiable voting trail,” said David Ditch, the court clerk at Iberia Parish. “Everyone – all political persuasions and everyone who comes into my office – says the same thing: ‘We like the way we vote now. We just wish we had something to prove it at the end.

The commission ultimately voted to recommend the use of hand-marked or machine-marked ballots or a combination of the two, and that the state retain electronic tabulators for counting ballots. Commissioners, including Adroin, voted in favor of machine-digitized vote counts – not manual counts.

The next move is Ardoin’s.

A Republican first elected in 2018, he has championed state election security, even as he handed a megaphone to some of the most prominent election conspiracy theorists.

In response to written questions, his office said Ardoin is “currently reviewing the commission’s recommendations and will work with his staff as these recommendations relate to the next steps in acquiring a new voting system.”

Asked if the goal was to have a new voting system in place before the 2024 presidential election, Ardoin’s office said it was “difficult at this time to say what the timeline will be. but that two years is “probably the closest estimate”.

At a July rally of the nation’s top state election officials, Ardoin raised the issue of hand-marked paper ballots while dismissing manual counting as something that would “extend elections over the years.” year”.

His remarks prompted fellow Republican, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, to tell the group that he had previously served as an international observer in Russia and had seen the hand count up close.

“If you want some direction on how it goes, this is the easiest cheat you can present to anyone,” Merrill told attendees. “I can assure you that’s not a direction you want to go. People promoting who are ignorant or misinformed, period.

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