- Associated Press - Thursday, February 25, 2021

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A key Louisiana Senate leader Thursday called on Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin to jettison his search for new voting machines and redo the effort after seeking more guidance from lawmakers, election experts and the public.

In a sharply worded letter to Ardoin, Sen. Sharon Hewitt said the state’s Republican elections chief rushed to start shopping for replacement voting equipment without legislative oversight and without trying to reinforce public trust. She accused Ardoin of “attempting to further avoid public scrutiny by hiding behind a blackout period” now that the solicitation for bidders is underway.

“As THE statewide elected official charged with protecting our election procedures, your office’s actions are paramount to building trust and instilling confidence that our elections are fair and run according to Louisiana laws enacted by the legislature,” Hewitt wrote in a letter to Ardoin.

Ardoin defended his search for a contractor and suggested he will continue to pursue the effort.

Hewitt leads the Senate’s Republican delegation and chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees election issues - a position that could make it difficult for Ardoin if he tries to continue shopping for voting machines without her support. Ardoin will need contract approval from the majority-GOP joint House and Senate budget committee before entering into any deal for election equipment, and Hewitt also sits on that panel.



She urged Ardoin to cancel the vendor search, “slow this process down, learn from other states’ experiences and put together a revised plan to make Louisiana the nation’s preeminent leader in election integrity.”

Ardoin offered no indication he intended to follow her suggestion, sending a statement to The Associated Press that defended his handling of state elections and his solicitation for vendors.

“Because the chairwoman’s letter fails to address any specific issue with the (request for proposals), I can only believe this is an attempt to sow doubt in the integrity of the RFP process,” he said. He added that the process “follows ALL laws as written by the legislature. If there’s displeasure with the laws, only the legislature can change them.”

Ardoin launched the search for a voting machine vendor on Jan. 27, with the first new machines expected to be in some parishes by the spring 2022 elections. Louisiana’s contract is estimated to be worth up to $100 million.

Bids from companies interested in the work were supposed to be due at the end of March.

But the process to select a new contractor already has been temporarily stalled by Louisiana’s chief procurement officer after an interested vendor filed a protest claiming the bid solicitation appeared drawn to sideline some qualified election technology firms.

Ardoin disagreed, saying the request for proposals from contractors is open and fair. He’s asked the procurement officer, Paula Tregre, to resume the voting machine replacement work.

It wasn’t clear when the contractor search will resume. Hewitt‘s letter injects more uncertainty into the future of the search to replace the state’s decades-old voting equipment.

The senator sought a legislative oversight hearing and said Ardoin rushed the bid solicitation out before one could be held, undermining “the public’s ability to provide input and ask questions.” Hewitt suggested the search for contractors and evaluation of voting technology could be improved by involving outside experts to certify that election systems meet Louisiana standards.

“I’m frustrated and disappointed that a less transparent process of inhouse certifications has been chosen,” she said.

The last effort to replace Louisiana’s 10,000 Election Day and early voting machines failed in 2018. Allegations of improper bid handling derailed that contract award.

Hewitt said she was “profoundly concerned that history is repeating itself.”

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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