- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2021

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana lawmakers intend a close watch as the state shops for new voting machines, a vendor search that comes in the aftermath of a divisive, partisan national uproar about the mechanics of casting ballots and the equipment used in that process.

The solicitation for contractors went out last week, and lawmakers are planning a joint hearing of the House and Senate elections oversight committees on Feb. 19 to dig into the details of Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin‘s effort to replace 10,000 decades-old voting machines.

“We as legislators want to be able to tell our constituents that this is a good process and that we are confident in the vendor that was selected. I think part of our responsibility is rebuilding the public trust. I think some of the national issues have caused everyone to have doubts,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees voting issues.

Ardoin held a conference call Friday with GOP lawmakers to talk through the search he started Jan. 27 and what criteria a contractor must meet. The Republican elections chief has offered a similar briefing to Democrats, according to Ardoin‘s spokesperson Tyler Brey.

“As you can imagine, we’ve been getting a lot of calls from legislators who are getting constituent calls asking about voting issues,” Brey said. “We just wanted to provide some information that will maybe give peace of mind.”

Voting machine contracts stretch over years, the deals are lucrative and only a few companies offer the equipment. Louisiana is expected to be the only state in the market for new machines this year, putting a spotlight on its work.

Even before the controversies of the presidential election, Ardoin was going to face intensified scrutiny about his efforts to buy or lease thousands of new voting machines, because allegations of improper bid handling derailed a previous effort to replace the equipment in 2018.

On top of that, many Republicans - including some of Louisiana’s GOP lawmakers - continue to repeat former President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud in other states.

Trump supporters also have targeted Louisiana’s current voting machine contractor, Dominion Voting Systems, insisting the company’s machines were somehow to blame for Trump’s loss in key swing states - but not his victory in Louisiana. Dominion has sued Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani for spreading the unsubstantiated claims and is threatening other lawsuits.

Hewitt doesn’t seem interested in retreading those national debates in Louisiana’s upcoming legislative hearing.

“I don’t want to turn it into a circus, where there’s just a bunch of finger-pointing or false allegations that could try to influence the bid. I want the hearing to be more focused on the process and what’s our role and how are we going to evaluation the machines,” she said. “I’m not as interested in hearing allegations in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or Michigan because I don’t know what’s fact or what’s fiction.”

Still, a Republican Party official in Louisiana, Lenar Whitney, slammed Dominion at the party governing body’s recent meeting and raised concerns about the company possibly being considered for a new contract. Meanwhile, some GOP lawmakers have indicated they want to discuss Dominion’s performance.

Rep. John Stefanski, the Crowley Republican who leads the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, would not speculate about what topics may surface at the voting machine hearing. But he added: “In Louisiana, I don’t think you’ve seen the allegations other states have had. So, I think our conversation is different.”

Bids from companies interested in the voting machine contract are due by March 24. Ardoin hopes to have the first new early voting machines in some parishes by the spring 2022 elections.

Lawmakers already have added one new wrinkle to Ardoin’s replacement effort. They included language in this year’s budget requiring the secretary of state to get contract approval from the joint House and Senate budget committee before entering into any deal for election equipment.


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

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