As promised, Luzerne County received $1.04 million in a new annual State Election Integrity Grant designed to ensure counties across the state have their mail-in ballots counted by midnight. on election night, the administration said.
Some had questioned the administration’s decision to pursue plans to spend the funds without certainty the money would arrive, expressing concerns the county would be on the hook. The administration has verified that the money is now in the county coffers.
A majority of council voted on Monday to authorize the use of part of the funds to purchase an absentee ballot sorting machine to be ordered and in place for the Nov. 8 general election.
The election office asked the machine to speed up counting on election night and reduce the staff needed to manually scan at least 18,000 mail-in ballot outer envelopes to mark them as received.
Based on the weight of the envelope, the machine will also instantly discard inner secret envelopes that are missing or contain more than one authorized ballot inside, the administration said.
The $490,500 purchase price included $315,500 for the system and a $35,000 annual license and service agreement for five years.
Deputy Chief Electoral Officer Beth McBride said Wednesday she negotiated a contract that would reduce the cost to $350,500, largely by making the service agreement optional in 2024, 2025 and 2026. The county would decide the next year if he wants to keep the deal for the remaining three years at $35,000 a year, she said.
McBride said she also secured a tentative Sept. 19 date for delivery of the machine to the county, allowing time for training. The Agilis Mail ballot sorting system is from Runbeck Election Systems.
“We are excited to receive it and the impact it will have on the office and Luzerne County voters,” McBride said. “This machine will have a direct result on when our election results are completed.”
County Comptroller Walter Griffith said Wednesday he was encouraging the Elections Office and the Citizens’ Election Commission to put the machine under video surveillance when it’s in use and ensure bipartisan observation is allowed.
McBride said the machine would be in the electoral office, which has video surveillance. Bipartisan observers and election committee members will be present when the machine is used for Election Day sorting, as they always are for any manual screening and opening of ballots, she said.
Contact Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.