Election officials in Florida’s Leon County are scrambling tocomply with state and federal voting laws after the county’spreferred vendor for optical scan voting systems backed out of aninformal deal.

The Leon County Commission had turned to Election Systems andSoftware Inc. (ES&S) after voting last month to replace 160AccuVote optical scan voting machines from Diebold Election SystemsInc. because of fears that the AccuVote machines may not complywith laws on handicapped accessibility. The commission alsoquestioned the accuracy of the Diebold machines.

ES&S had informally agreed to a US$1.8 million deal to supplyits AutoMark optical scan gear to Leon County. The county hadexpected that the equipment would help it meet the requirements ofthe federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and Florida electionlaws.

All U.S. voting precincts were required by HAVA to havetouch-screen or specially equipped optical-scan devices by Jan. 1,2006. Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho said last weekthat he doesn’t expect to face penalties as long as the county isworking to get equipment.

Sancho said that he couldn’t explain why Omaha-based ES&Sbacked out of the proposed deal, which had included agreements onprice, terms and equipment.

In an e-mail statement, ES&S also offered no specific reasonsfor its decision. “Toward the end of last year, we were presentedwith the possibility of entering into a long-term relationship withthe county,” an ES&S spokesman said. “After a great deal ofcareful consideration, we made the decision [on Dec. 29] not toenter into an agreement to provide equipment and services to thecounty.

“After evaluating all of the information available to us at thetime, we determined that we were unlikely to have an effectivepartnership with the county,” the spokesman said.

The county had expected to have ES&S voting systems in placefor the next federal election and to gain federal grant money tohelp pay for them.

Sancho said approval of any federal grants for the equipment is nowin jeopardy as the county begins a new search for voting machinesthat meet state and federal guidelines. The options include onceagain turning to Diebold equipment or choosing another vendor, hesaid.

“At this point, it’s not clear what we’ll do,” said Sancho. “I’vegot two major entities in the elections business that simply don’thave the time to deal with Leon County.”

Sancho has been public with his doubts about the reliability ofelectronic voting gear; he even sponsored test hacks into thecounty’s Diebold AccuVote optical scan systems — a move that ledto a somewhat strained relationship with Allen, Texas-basedDiebold.