Indy election officials want $1.4 million machine to help with early ballots

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Marion County’s absentee ballots have always been assembled, sent and processed by hand, requiring an army of temporary workers to do the work for all of the county’s precincts. 

The Marion County Election Board wants to buy a $1.4 million machine to do it instead, in what Election Board leaders from both parties say would boost vote accountability, accuracy, integrity and transparency. 

“Our current process, right now, is that we have a bunch of staff in a room that compose all the ballots that go out. This would automate that process,” said Brienne Delaney, the Election Board’s election director.

She spoke before a City-County Council committee Tuesday to ask for the money: $200,000 that the County Clerk’s Office is putting toward the effort, and another $400,000 from the General Fund. The rest is coming from the agency’s own budget.

“We do currently have 600 precincts and we employ lots of staff to help us sort these ballots at the end of each day, by precinct,” Delaney told councilors. “This equipment, again, removes that human error, and can sort a lot faster.”

Voters cast more than 300,000 mail-in and in-person early ballots in the 2020 primary and general elections, according to the Election Board. Influxes of pre-election day ballots can have big impacts on a quick count, since Indiana law bans processing of ballots before the day itself.

The million-dollar machine is from BlueCrest, formerly a division of Pitney Bowes’ Document Messaging Technologies. It can process 5,000-7,000 completed envelopes an hour with just two employees operating it, according to slides presented at the meeting.

The equipment will also, officials said, help them take aim at election skeptics.

“We all experienced and heard all of the rhetoric from the past presidential election about absentee voting being fraudulent,” said County Clerk Myla Eldridge, a Democrat, who is also Election Board secretary. “And so, my staff and I took this ‘off year’ to … provid[e] [councilors] with the research we found on how we can improve our absentee program.”

The Election Board’s Republican member concurs.

“This purchase does have bipartisan support,” Vice-Chair Jennifer L. Ping, also a previous IndyGOP chair, told IBJ. 

“With the number of absentee ballots that Marion County receives, to have a process that’s more automated, more secure, more accurate, it’s the right move to protect our voters’ ballots,” said Ping, who’s also executive director of governmental affairs at Krieg DeVault.

Delaney said that in addition to automating absentee ballot assembly and processing, the machine would also enable Election Board staff to trace each piece of mail through the U.S. Postal Service’s “intelligent mail” barcode technology. That, she said, means employees would know exactly where a ballot is in the mail system—instead of having to tell worried voters they’re not sure. 

The first year of support and licensing for the equipment would add another $100,000, for a total of $1.5 million.

The full City-County Council is expected to vote on the appropriations at its Dec. 6 meeting. The Election Board hasn’t voted on the contract itself, but that could come as soon as its Nov. 18 meeting, Ping said.

The Election Board says “absentee” ballots include in-person early votes, domestic mail-ins and mail-ins from military personnel, travelers and expats abroad.

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