NC taxpayers overcharged for election ballots?

August 6, 2010 2:14:08 PM PDT
Some say North Carolina taxpayers are being overcharged for voting ballots, along with machines and their maintenance, because of what, they say, is essentially a monopoly on voting in the state.Wake County is one of only a few counties saving taxpayers money by fighting those driving up prices at election time.

"I'm always worried when any company has a monopoly on public business," North Carolina Senator Richard Stevens said.

Stevens has been working with Wake County to correct the consequences of Nebraska-based company Elections Systems & Software, or ES&S, winning a certification of award five years ago requiring all counties to buy its voting machines.

"They have all the maintenance, all the equipment, all the state's printing ... that's a concern to me," Stevens said.

ES&S' sole subcontractor is a New Bern company called Printelect, which does ES&S' maintenance and prints ballots for 85 to 90 counties in the state.

The president of the company tells ABC11 Eyewitness News that they charge between $0.15 and $0.30 a ballot.

However, many counties say it is more upwards of $0.30. But a handful of counties, including Wake County, do not use Printelect.

Wake County uses Commercial Printing in Raleigh and gets its ballots for about half of that. An internal e-mail from Franklin County estimates $0.42 per ballot from Printelect, while an invoice from Wake County averages $0.13.

Then there's the issue of machine maintenance. Right now, it's paid for with federal money, but that ends in the next two years. After that it'll be up to counties and the only company allowed to do it is Printelect.

A letter from the Board of Elections shows in 2010, maintenance on voting machines in just Wake County will cost more than $170,000, which the county says it could take care of for a fraction of the cost.

"First of all, ES&S has got to allow that maintenance program to happen," Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett said. "We're not in a position to tell ES&S what to do unless they want to do it. We can suggest and we have, but it hasn't gotten us very far."

However, Printelect's president, Owen Andrews, tells ABC11 the state doesn't have a contract with ES&S or Printelect and that's where he thinks the story "falls apart."

Still, ES&S was the only company that met state specifications when it went out for bid five years ago and Printelect is ES&S' only subcontractor in the state.

The I-Team has also learned Andrews and others in his family have given thousands of dollars to state Democrats.

State records show Andrews has personally given more than $32,000, while his wife Debra has given $9,000 to the Perdue committee and the Democratic Party.

None of the contributions have been illegal, but much of the money was given in and after 2005, when the state was soliciting bids for voting equipment. And Andrews' company got a windfall of business when ES&S was awarded the exclusive state contract.

ABC11 also contacted ES&S for comment after Senator Stevens and Bartlett both described the state's relationship with the company, as essentially a monopoly, but calls have been unreturned.

Some have suggested why not buy different machines, but the ones the state has are good for another five to seven years.

In the meantime later this month, the Board of Elections will discuss if there may be money to be saved in ballots.

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