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Louisiana elections chief asks to resume voting tech search


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Louisiana’s top elections official is pushing to resume his voting machine replacement effort, telling the state’s chief procurement officer that her temporary hold on work to hire a contractor “needlessly upended” the process.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin lambasted the decision by Louisiana’s chief procurement officer Paula Tregre, whose office in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration oversees the bidding process. Tregre stopped the voting machine shopping work after one of the interested vendors, Texas-based Hart InterCivic, complained the contractor solicitation was drawn too narrowly and could sideline it and other qualified voting technology firms.

The secretary of state’s office said Wednesday that suggestions from the company that the bid solicitation wasn’t being inclusive to vendors “is absurd.” Ardoin sent a letter to Tregre on Sunday saying she “injected confusion” into the replacement effort.

“By jumping the gun and declaring a stay of (request for proposals), we cannot even evaluate the concerns raised in Hart’s letter,” Ardoin wrote.

It wasn’t clear when the contractor search will resume.

Ardoin, a Republican, launched the search for a voting machine vendor on Jan. 27. Bids from companies interested in the contract were supposed to be due at the end of March. Louisiana’s contract is estimated to be worth up to $100 million. Ardoin wants to have the first new early voting machines in some parishes by the spring 2022 elections.

Hart InterCivic CEO Julie Mathis said several of the secretary of state’s requirements for contractors – including the type of voting system sought, the machines’ screen size and the phased approach to rolling out new machines – could arbitrarily keep some election technology from being considered.

She submitted her concerns in a letter to Ardoin and Tregre. Tregre responded late Friday by stopping the bid process, saying she was treating Hart InterCivic’s complaint as an official protest under the law. Mathis replied in an email that the company hadn’t intended to “invoke a protest,” but rather to “open a dialogue.”

Ardoin criticized Tregre’s decision, and Tregre sent a follow-up email asking Mathis whether she wanted her company’s complaints to be considered an official protest – which would keep the bid process on hold.

Ardoin suggested that approach was inappropriate.

“I am not sure what more clarification you need than their statement that they did not intend to invoke a protest,” he wrote to Tregre.

But after questions from Tregre, Hart InterCivic decided to lodge an official protest.

“We recognize that moving forward with a protest as you’ve suggested is likely in the best interests of all parties. Though a formal protest was not our original intention, we understand it may be the most transparent and fair mechanism to call attention to, and to resolve, the issues we’ve laid before you,” Mathis replied.

The secretary of state’s office said it could have answered many of the concerns the company raised during the regular question-and-answer process of the bid solicitation, without stalling the entire effort. For example, certain specifications for the type of voting system sought are required under state law, said Tyler Brey, a spokesman for Ardoin.

The early disruption in Louisiana’s effort to shop for voting machines brought reminders of the secretary of state’s failed attempt in 2018 to replace its 10,000 early voting and Election Day equipment, when allegations of improper bid handling derailed that effort.

A Friday legislative hearing scheduled to dig into the details of the vendor search has been postponed because of a week of rare, severe winter weather in Louisiana. Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Republican who leads one of the election oversight committees, said she intends to reschedule the hearing.

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

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