COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's elections chief wants counties to modernize their voting machines before the 2020 presidential election, and he's urging the governor and state lawmakers to foot much of the bill.
Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted sent a letter to Gov. John Kasich, his budget director and state legislative leaders on Thursday seeking $118 million in state capital funds for the project.
"While I am confident that the storage, maintenance and operating procedures used by the boards of elections will ensure that these systems remain secure and accurate through the 2018 election cycle, Ohio's leaders must act soon to ensure an orderly transition to newer equipment well before the 2020 presidential general election," he wrote.
Ohio is a bellwether political state with about 7.9 million registered voters. Donald Trump, a Republican, won the state's 2016 presidential contest against Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, by 447,000 votes, more than 8 percentage points.
Husted said the $118 million would cover 100 percent of the "lowest estimated cost" for new equipment: optical scan machines his office's review found to cost least among state and federally certified machines.
Counties that wanted to buy more expensive equipment — say, with the most digital bells and whistles — would need to cover the difference with local funds. Those few counties that have already upgraded could be reimbursed for those expenses up to the lowest estimated cost figure, Husted said.
Husted, a candidate for lieutenant governor, called the plan forward-looking, cost-effective and fair to counties that need help funding the improved technology.
Husted said he's been calling for years for the aging equipment to be modernized and the situation has become urgent. He wants counties to begin buying equipment by 2018 so it can be in place for use as a sort of test run in the less hectic 2019 election.
Ohio counties all use either touchscreen or optical machines, which feature optical scanners that read paper ballots and tally results, but voting officials say technological advances are needed to bring their inner workings up to date. They say using the current machines is like having an old flip phone in an age of smartphones.
"The last time Ohio replaced its voting machines, the iPhone hadn't been released, people still rented movies from Blockbuster and social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat didn't exist," Husted said. "It's time to make updating our voting equipment a priority."
Husted's recommendation comes as legislators and the Republican Kasich administration are exploring their own ideas for the best path forward to newer machines before the next big election. Ohio's capital budget process begins in January.
Aaron Ockerman, a lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said the organization supports Husted's effort.
"It's a viable plan, it's a thoughtful plan and the thing I'm most pleased about is it does preserve the counties' ability to choose their own voting machines," he said.
Ockerman said new optical scan machines, unlike older ones, save a digital image of each ballot that can be useful when confirming vote tallies. He said the modernization would also allow counties to replace mechanical equipment that's gotten old and worn out.
He said about a dozen of Ohio's 88 counties have gotten new machines within the past three or four years, but even those machines could probably stand to be upgraded by 2020.
"No county wants to go through the presidential election with the equipment they have now," he said.
Kasich's office said the governor is aware of the proposal and is reviewing it.