New election equipment coming to Osceola County, the state

REED CITY — Months after the 2016 general election, Osceola County Clerk Karen Bluhm is already looking ahead at the 2018 mid-term.

Bluhm, as well as county and local clerks around the state, are being tasked with selecting new election equipment.

The county clerk recently informed officials the state selected three vendors.

"I've seen a lot of the equipment, as the vendors have been showing  stuff off for years," she said Wednesday afternoon. "It's always the 'newest' stuff and the 'latest and greatest.' Some of the stuff was not even approved by the state at that point."

Bluhm said the next step is for her and local clerks to find the vendor with equipment that will best fit their needs.

"All three vendors have electronic equipment with different methods," she said. "Each of them have different features. I want to make sure we have time to understand everything about the purchase, as well as understand the equipment, the different types and what they can and cannot do."

The state has put a little pressure on officials to make a decision, the county clerk said.

"The state has been working on requests for proposals for more than two years and they want us to make a decision by the end of the month," she said. "We will not accomplish it. We will have new new equipment by August of 2018."

Bluhm has invited other county and local clerks from around the region to a Feb. 28 meeting where the vendors and equipment will be on hand.

"I want it to be more like an open house atmosphere for local clerks to come and view it at a time frame that fits their schedules, because a lot of them work full-time jobs," she said.

To help offset costs for the purchase of equipment, Bluhm said the state still has funds from the Help America Vote Act, which helped update the state's election equipment in 2006.

"When that federal money came in, the state did not spend it all and helped with the purchase of equipment," she recalled. "However, local townships and

counties also have been paying an annual maintenance fee for that equipment, which wasn't something included when the purchase was made."

"I've been trying to find if there are any hidden costs," she said. "We didn't know when we bought the current equipment we were going to be paying maintenance."

The county clerk said she wants to make sure she and others have as much information as possible before making a decision so there are no surprises.

Bluhm said bids from the three vendors only outline statewide purchases of equipment, ranging from $38 million to $56.7 million, and they do not provide information about how many devices that is or what the cost is per device.

"There could be annual maintenance fees," she said. "It's not just about the equipment that will be included in the cost. You don't see the software that will have to go with it for the computers. There also is programming the machines, and whether the county will want to do it ourselves or pay higher for a maintenance agreement to have that done."

While the federal money will be there for the half of the 10 years the state wants purchasing contracts to last, Bluhm said there could be costs down the road that hurt townships.

"They don't have a lot of money to make these big purchases," she said. "Right now the money is there for this equipment. The next time equipment has to be bought, there won't be those federal funds and then it will cost the local governments more."

Bluhm added she has had several conversations with Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, about the new equipment, and has expressed her hope to have the most cost-effective system that also is user-friendly.

"Our current equipment is working," she pointed out. "We don't have the volume going through ours as the bigger counties do. We went through this when we bought equipment in 2006. I want to make sure that the next pieces of equipment that will be with the county are durable and cost effective."

The county clerk added she has some concerns about the equipment.

"They have been showing us this equipment for the last couple of years and it was new equipment then," she said. "Technology changes. The moment you buy a computer, it's already outdated by the time you take it out of the box."

Bluhm said the proposals would include the vendor disposing of the current election equipment.