Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Louisiana struggles to buy new voting machines after placating election deniers

by BIZ Magazine

Lawmakers aim to repeal burdensome parts of 2021 law

BY: WESLEY MULLER – Louisiana Illuminator

Mobile trailers hold voting machines in Terrebonne Parish
Workers with the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office assemble voting machines in trailers at the Bourg Community Center in Terrebonne Parish on Nov. 8, 2021, ahead of the Nov. 13 statewide election. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

A voting systems law the Louisiana Legislature enacted three years ago to placate right-wing election deniers has made the task of buying voting machines so burdensome that lawmakers are now repealing parts of it.

House Bill 856, sponsored by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, would repeal requirements that the secretary of state use the state’s Administrative Procedure Act to purchase new machines and contract with at least three independent experts to certify the machines, among other stipulations in the law.

The bill, which is pending a final concurrence vote in the House, sailed through both chambers without opposition, though the most significant parts of the legislation were only recently added through an amendment adopted Thursday on the Senate floor.

The proposal repeals parts of a statute lawmakers passed in 2021, Act 480, which created the Voting System Commission within the Louisiana Department of State. Comprised of government officials who serve without compensation, the commission is charged with analyzing any available voting systems and recommending a specific type to the secretary of state.

The 2021 law also created a separate Voting System Proposal Evaluation Committee to independently review vendors that submitted bids before making a final recommendation.

Joel Watson, spokesperson for Secretary of State Nancy Landry, said the process involves multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape that will delay the purchase of new voting machines by an additional two years.

“No other agency has to go through this kind of process,” Watson said.

Johnson’s bill would retain the Voting System Commission and the Voting System Proposal Evaluation Committee with some small changes. But it repeals requirements that the secretary of state create rules under the Administrative Procedure Act for the purchase of any voting systems and hire at least three independent experts to certify the machines.

“We didn’t want to take away these parts of the bill geared toward transparency,” Watson said. “We just didn’t want to have to go through a massive two-year-extra process … The system we have now is far too old to go through a process that would add two additional years.”

The state’s current voting machines are almost 35 years old and have become difficult and costly to repair because parts are no longer made for such outdated systems. If Johnson’s bill becomes law, it will take an estimated three years to acquire new systems as opposed to five, Watson said.

Lawmakers created the Voting System Commission and all the other sweeping requirements under pressure from a small group of Trump supporters who went to the State Capitol several times during the 2021 legislative session and bogged down committee hearings with far-fetched election conspiracy theories involving the 2020 presidential election. They offered no actual evidence to support what they alleged, but some Republican lawmakers embraced the lies.

Many of the baseless claims were about Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine vendor that many Trump supporters falsely accused of rigging the election.

In 2023, Dominion won a nearly $800 million defamation lawsuit against Fox News, which spread some of the conspiracy theories. Court filings, as detailed in the New York Times, exposed scores of embarrassing internal emails and text messages showing Fox’s biggest TV personalities and executives collaborating with top GOP operatives and knowingly repeating lies on the air.

By that time, much of the damage caused by Trump’s “Big Lie” had already taken its toll. In 2021, Louisiana Republicans had forced then-Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, also a Republican, to cancel open bidding for new voting machines because they said the bid language was too favorable to Dominion.

When Landry attended a May 8 Senate committee hearing on the bill, Sen. Greg Miller, R-Norco, asked her for an update on the purchase of new voting machines. Landry was Ardoin’s first assistant secretary before replacing her former boss in January.

“It seems like forever we’ve been hearing about new voting machines,” Miller said. “I think really since before around 2015 or so.”

Landry said it’s her “number one priority” but told Miller the 2021 law has turned it into a “long and drawn out process.”

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