Conspiracies complicate voting machine debate in Louisiana

Aug 13, 2022, 5:44 AM | Updated: Aug 14, 2022, 9:38 pm
FILE - People vote on Election Day at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School in the Lower 9th W...

FILE - People vote on Election Day at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, Nov. 8, 2016. The need for Louisiana to replace its voting machines is not in dispute. They were deployed in 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina struck, and don't produce paper ballots that are critical to ensuring election results are accurate. What to do about them is another story. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The need for Louisiana to replace its voting machines is not in dispute.

They are badly outdated — deployed in 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina struck — and do not produce paper ballots that are critical to ensuring election results are accurate.

What to do about them is another story.

The long-running drama includes previous allegations of bid-rigging, voting machine companies claiming favoritism and a secretary of state who is noncommittal about having a new system in place for the 2024 presidential election.

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

“It would be a travesty to let a minority of people who have little to no experience in election administration tear down an exceptional process that was painstakingly built over many, many years,” Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Court Lynn Jones told state officials in a meeting this summer. “And for us to throw it out of the window because of unfounded theories is mind-boggling.”

The uncertainty is playing out against a backdrop of attacks on the integrity of elections, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him and promoted by a web of his allies and supporters. Some of those same supporters have been trying to convince election officials across the country that they should ditch machines in favor of paper ballots and hand-counts.

Whatever success they have had so far has been limited primarily to GOP-dominated rural counties. But in Louisiana, a heavily Republican state that Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points, they have managed to insert themselves into an already long-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 — some 10,000 in all.

The machines’ main problem, aside from their age and the challenge of finding replacement parts, is that votes are recorded electronically without a paper record of each voter’s selections. That means if a result is in dispute, there are no individual paper ballots to review to ensure the outcome was accurate. Under a new state law, Louisiana’s next voting system must have a paper trail of ballots cast so election results can be properly audited.

“The problem in Louisiana is that if someone were to allege the voting machines had been hacked, there would be no conclusive evidence to rebut that,” said Mark Lindeman, director of Verified Voting, which tracks the use of voting equipment in the United States. “It leaves election officials to prove a negative.”

While election clerks agree the machines are antiquated and there is a need for a paper record, the equipment does not appear to have caused any major problems in recent years.

In 2018, the nation’s top homeland security and cybersecurity officials urged states to replace any remaining voting systems without a paper trail to improve security and increase public confidence. Congress allocated $805 million before 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 the state had already begun the procurement process.

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

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

The false claims have taken root in conservative communities, where local officials have been pressured to stop using computer equipment for casting and counting ballots. Nearly two years after the last presidential election, no evidence of any widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines has surfaced, and courts have rejected dozens of court cases filed by Trump and his allies.

Last December, Phil Waldron — a retired Army colonel who circulated a PowerPoint presentation offering suggestions for how to overturn the 2020 election — was invited to speak to the commission tasked with recommending the new voting system for Louisiana. Waldron gave a 90-minute presentation focusing on counting paper ballots by hand, according to The Washington Post.

More recently, Lindell, one of the most prominent supporters of ditching election machines and counting every ballot by hand, traveled to Baton Rouge to testify before the same commission.

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

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

At the meeting, multiple clerks said they were opposed to what Lindell was advocating — having every voter fill out a paper ballot and having every ballot counted by hand, a process that would involve tens of thousands of ballots in the most populous counties.

“Don’t mistake not wanting to go back to a pen-and-paper as not wanting to have an auditable vote trail,” said David Ditch, the clerk of court for Iberia Parish. “Everybody — every political persuasion and everybody that comes into my office — says the same thing, ‘We love the way we vote now. We just wish we had something to prove it in the end.'”

The commission ultimately voted to recommend the use of either hand-marked or machine-marked ballots or a combination of the two, and for the state to keep electronic tabulators for counting ballots. Commissioners, including Adroin, voted in favor of machine-scanned vote tallies — not hand-counts.

The next move is Ardoin’s.

A Republican first elected in 2018, he has defended the state’s elections as secure even as he has handed a megaphone to some of the most prominent election conspiracy theorists.

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

When asked whether 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 timetable will be” but that two years is “probably the closest estimate.”

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

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

“If you’d like to have an orientation about how that goes, that is the easiest way to cheat that you can introduce to anybody,” Merrill told attendees. “I can assure you that’s not a direction that you want to go. The people that are promoting that are ignorant or ill-informed, period.”

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Conspiracies complicate voting machine debate in Louisiana