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Decision upheld to scrap Louisiana voting machine contract

The Louisiana secretary of state's office will have to redo its work to replace the state's decade-old voting machines, after Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration refused Wednesday to reinstate a voided multimillion-dollar contract award.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne reviewed the decision to scrap the deal with Dominion Voting Systems, and Dardenne said he found that cancelling the contract award was "in the best interest of the state."

"As important as it is for the state to procure high-quality, efficient and reliable voting machine technology, it is equally important that the public have confidence that the voting machines their tax dollars pay for are procured fairly, transparently and in accordance with law," Dardenne wrote in a letter outlining his decision.

If Dominion wants to continue to try to hang onto the lucrative contract award to replace 10,000 Election Day and early voting machines, it will have to go to court. Otherwise, the company will have to bid again in a new process that starts from scratch.

The company didn't immediately say what approach it would take. "We are considering all available options," Dominion spokeswoman Kay Stimson said in a statement. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican in office since May and running in a December special election to remain in the job, hasn't said how or when he'll restart the bid process.

He's defended the selection of Dominion and criticized the Democratic Edwards administration for tossing out the contract award. In October, Louisiana's chief procurement officer Paula Tregre scrapped the voting machine replacement contract award in response to a protest filed by losing bidder Election Systems and Software, known as ES&S. Tregre found problems with the vendor selection process.

"The governor's administration just sided with a company that was 40 million dollars more expensive and was the elections systems supplier for all of Broward County, Florida," where election officials struggled to count the vote this month, Ardoin said in a statement.

Dominion challenged the decision to Tregre's boss, Dardenne, arguing that a new bid and selection process didn't serve the public's interest to modernize election infrastructure. Dominion also said no "reasonable grounds" were offered for canceling the contract award.

Tregre said the secretary of state's office did not properly post voting system standards expected of a contractor, as required by state law.

She said the request for vendor proposals said the secretary of state's office would post certification standards on its website when the bid solicitation was issued. That didn't happen, Tregre said, and later posted standards were withdrawn amid ES&S complaints that those standards were aimed to help Dominion.

"Such a significant misstep in protocol raises serious questions about the integrity of the solicitation process," Dardenne wrote. Dominion said bidders received sufficient guidance in the bid solicitation about the standards. The company said the text of what was required was clearly listed in the request for proposals, even if not on the website.

Tregre also determined that Dominion's proposal involved equipment not properly certified by federal authorities. Dominion said that was a minor, fixable issue without throwing out the entire contract award. ES&S said its competitor was trying to hang onto a contract award that violated Louisiana law.

It said the secretary of state's office hasn't properly updated its voting machine standards since machines were bought in 2005, despite numerous law changes over 13 years.

Those old standards, ES&S said, don't contain required standards for counting absentee or early votes. The secretary of state's office solicited bids to replace its current voting machines with smaller devices, improved technology and a paper record of votes.

Three companies bid for the contract. Dominion estimated the work would cost up to $95 million. The voting machine replacement work began under Ardoin's predecessor and former boss, Republican Tom Schedler. Schedler resigned in May amid sexual harassment allegations.

After Tregre voided the contract award to Dominion, Ardoin lashed out at Edwards, claiming Tregre sided with losing bidder ES&S because the company's lobbyist is an Edwards supporter. Dardenne called Ardoin's claims absurd, saying Ardoin was trying to turn a procedural issue into a political fight.