BISMARCK-North Dakota county officials are warning the state's aging election system could be "unworkable" by the next presidential contest and are seeking state funding for new equipment.
But legislators who are trying to fund state agencies and programs with significantly less tax revenue than they had just a few years ago are hesitant to meet the request.
House Bill 1123, introduced at the request of the Secretary of State, would appropriate $9 million from the general fund to replace equipment such as ballot scanners across the state. House Bill 1122 would appropriate $3 million to place electronic poll books, which are currently used by only eight counties to check in voters, in every polling location in North Dakota.
Kevin Glatt, the Burleigh County auditor, said they've "meticulously maintained" the ballot scanners used at voting precincts, but they're wearing out. The county is currently using scanners that were put into service in 2004.
"I'm not certain I want to use them in 2018," Glatt said, adding the county may go to a vote-by-mail system. "Elections are kind of like sending a rocket to the moon; it has to work critically and it has to work the first time."
Glatt said Burleigh County has been fortunate to not have any significant breakdowns or malfunctions on Election Day.
But the House Appropriations Committee gave both bills a "do not pass" recommendation this week, said Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock. He cited a lack of available funds brought on by a downturn in farm and oil commodity prices.
"This is probably necessary at some point; I just don't see how we can do it," Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said during a committee hearing. "We're going to have to cut back every budget, no matter what the priority is and this one is going to be no different."
In written testimony, Cass County Auditor Michael Montplaisir said the county's precinct scanners and central count scanner are "extremely accurate." They perform annual maintenance and have obtained backup equipment from counties that have switched to vote-by-mail.
"Unfortunately, we see more failures on Election Day the older the equipment gets," Montplaisir said, adding that he and other staffers carry replacement scanners in their vehicles on Election Day. "While the failures do not impact the end result of the vote tally, they do impact the precinct election workers and the voters who have to sometimes wait until a replacement scanner is installed."
Other county auditors also noted problems with voting technology in submitted testimony, such as unreadable displays on ballot scanners and equipment that failed to sort write-in candidates.
Donnell Preskey, government and public relations specialist with the North Dakota Association of Counties, said in written testimony that election officials believe the system "could experience a dangerously high failure rate in 2018 and be unworkable in 2020."
The federal government provided funding for updated voting systems after the 2000 election, when a recount was initiated in Florida over the close contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Preskey said. Most of the machines used to cast and count ballots around the country were purchased between 2002 and 2008, and many of them were purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said North Dakota has about $1.7 million left of the roughly $16 million it received from HAVA, but those funds are currently used for ongoing election costs.
North Dakota isn't alone in needing updated equipment to keep its elections running smoothly. While some states have used direct appropriations from the Legislature, others have considered splitting the cost between the state and counties or using a grant program, according to the NCSL.
"States across the country face the same issue," Preskey said in an interview. "The equipment is aging, there's problems and there's no federal funds like there was last time to pay for it."