House buys new system for voting — it’s not cheap

As Washington state lawmakers begin voting on legislation in the House chambers this week, they will record their yeas and nays on a new roll-call system that cost more than a half-million dollars.

The technology, a replacement for an aging system that had been giving legislators fits and costing the state thousands in annual service fees, features touch-screen pads on lawmakers’ desks.

High overhead on the chamber’s front wall, a newer and brighter display board will list the names of who voted yea and who voted nay in clear capital letters. A visual projector also will shine the votes onto the back wall, giving a good view of results from anywhere in the room.

All the bills for the voting-machine rehabilitation project have not yet come in, but it is “spendy,” as House Chief Clerk Barbara Baker put it. The tally may reach $670,000 for the three “scoreboard” screens, the touch-screen pads on lawmakers’ desks, other hardware, new wiring, and software devised by state employees in the Legislative Services Center.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, DCovington, said the old system was malfunctioning and posing the risk of huge delays if it broke down completely at the wrong time. Seeing no other choice but to upgrade, lawmakers on an Executive Rules Committee agreed unanimously last year on a full replacement.

“This isn’t a frivolity or a game system or something that we can do without. This is a core function for allowing us to do our day-to-day activities. Without a machine that functions, we are not able to do the work of the people,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said this week, admitting the cost did cause leaders to “pause.”

But Sullivan said “catastrophic failure was imminent” with the old equipment, which dated to about 1996 or 1997 and was costing the state $13,000 in yearly servicecontract costs. The changes mirror a nearly $342,000 voting-system upgrade in the Senate in 2008, which did not require software as complex as the House’s because the Senate takes oral roll-call votes. The vote systems in both chambers are tied in with the Legislature’s online records systems so that vote tallies are automatically or instantly available to the public.

Baker said the House was plagued last year with increasingly frequent breakdowns in the voting system. The old system “failed repeatedly” and “when a member would vote, it wouldn’t work or sometimes the whole thing would freeze up,” she said.

In one notable moment last year, Rep. Tina Orwall was standing in as the assistant speaker pro tem. She spoke the standard words that the presiding officer says before each vote: “The speaker has opened the roll call machine.” Then, the Des Moines Democrat added: “The speaker has broken the roll call machine.”

Orwall hadn’t really broken anything but was at the helm when the machine acted up.

In looking at their options, House staff and leaders decided to use staffers at the Legislative Services Center to build the software. That is the same approach taken in the Senate four years before when it replaced its votetabulation software and the electronic screens that display vote totals and bill numbers for the public and members to see.

Just as the House now plans to do, the Senate covered all costs with savings on other in-house expenses.

The House and Senate decisions bring an end to its approximately 15-year relationship with Richmond, Va.-based International Roll-Call Corp., which builds voting systems and claims to serve most legislatures.

IRC president Bill Schaeffer disputed that there had been big problems with his firm’s software, saying it was more a case of Washington’s legislative leaders wanting local control.

“What transpired in the Washington House of Representatives doesn’t have anything to do with failing components, lack of service and support or project costs,” Schaeffer said in an email. “They simply wanted local control. Could the system have been replaced by us for less money? Yes.”

It wasn’t always clear in the House if malfunctions were originating inside IRC’s proprietary system or from state-owned hardware or something else, according to Bernard Dean, deputy chief clerk for the House.

As the House considered its options, IRC lowered its bid to about $382,000 for replacing its software and hardware, including the LED display screens, Baker said. But the inhouse approach was deemed to cost $366,500 for the same work. There were additional costs for the projector, touch-screen voting pads and furniture repairs, which the state would have had to pay with either option.

IRC also wanted $20,000 a year in service fees, a figure it later dropped to $13,000, Baker said. With all costs counted, IRC’s approach would have cost $699,700 versus the $671,000 estimate for the in-house option. Sullivan also said the decision by leaders of both parties’ caucuses was unanimous to go with what all agreed was a costly option.

“This wasn’t a partisan issue. It’s a core function in order for us to do our work. If you don’t have a voting machine that works, then we’ve got serious problems with completing our work,” Sullivan said.

Rep. Joel Kretz, the House Republicans’ deputy leader, said he and other members of the executive committee had lots of questions when they heard of the cost, but no one tried to block the move.

“That’s a lot of money to spend on something like that,” said Kretz, RWauconda.

The new system was installed over the summer and fall. Baker estimated it could last 20 years.

House members did a test vote Monday. On Friday they’ll use the new system for a real vote — to approve House rules for the session.