Unisys Jumps Into Voting System Market

Unisys Jumps Into Voting System Market

Ernest Hawkins

By William Welsh, Staff WriterUnisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa., is the first systems integrator out of the gate hoping to cash in on the nationwide push to modernize voting systems.The company announced Jan. 11 that it has formed an alliance with Dell Computer Corp. of Round Rock, Texas, and Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., to provide a comprehensive election solution. It would cover everything from voter registration and identification to ballot casting, tabulation and reporting of results.In the past, Unisys was reluctant to develop solutions for the election system market in the United States because of its fragmented nature, said Kevin Curry, vice president and general manager, Unisys' Public Sector North America. Meanwhile, it set about delivering different election solutions to international clients such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Rome. But with many state and local jurisdictions in the United States set to replace punch card and paper methods, which make up almost 50 percent of voting systems, the stage is set for the Unisys' team to push electronic replacements, he said. Unisys is prepared to do this either through its teaming arrangement with Dell and Microsoft or even in partnership with some of the vendors whose voting systems already have been tested and certified for use throughout the United States, Curry said. Unisys has an early toehold in Minnesota, Curry said, where it has won a contract with the office of the secretary of state to provide voter registration in future elections. The market for voting machine technology consists mostly of smaller companies, such as Global Election Systems Inc. of Omaha, Neb., MicroVote Corp. of Indianapolis and Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Inc. of Hayward, Calif. These companies typically have annual sales between $10 million and $25 million. Federal and state lawmakers are now proposing substantial increases in funding to help local governments buy advanced voting systems in the wake of the Florida election controversy. The anticipated increases have drawn the attention of systems integrator Unisys and technology giants Dell and Microsoft, and may perhaps grab the attention of other technology companies that have shied away from the market because of its low volume of business and infrequent system upgrades. One voting reform bill introduced in the Senate would provide $100 million a year through a matching grant program. Another bill that would provide a one-time, $250 million matching grant program will be reintroduced soon with multiyear funding, according to congressional sources.Allowing for time to administer a new grant program, it might be late 2002 before these funds are distributed to counties, said Ernest Hawkins, president of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks (NACRC) and Sacramento County, Calif., registrar of voters. The most significant funding proposal at the state level is a California bill that would provide $300 million to local jurisdictions for voting system modernization.Modernization is the most urgent need among approximately 100 large, urban counties looking to replace punch-card systems with either marksense or direct recording electronic systems, said Gwen Hoffman, senior adviser for the International Foundation for Election Systems, Washington. This is a nonprofit organization that serves as a clearinghouse for information about democratic development and elections. In the presidential election, spoiled ballots were disproportionately found in counties with punch-card voting systems, said Thomas Mann, W. Averell Harriman Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington. As a result, a consensus is developing around the nation that the punch-card system should be replaced, he said.In this context, large counties that use the punch-card system will be under pressure to re-examine the systems and consider upgrading them, Hawkins said.The National Commission on Election Standards and Reform, which was established by the National Association of Counties and NACRC, held its first meeting Jan. 10 and plans to release a comprehensive report on voting reform in the spring.Local elected officials are willing to push ahead with modernization, but they want to see if federal and state governments are going to provide funding help before dedicating their own funds, said Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services of Washington, an elections consulting firm. "Most of us will wait to see if there is federal or state funding," as modernizing election systems is costly, Hawkins said. For Sacramento County, the cost to replace the punch-card system starts at $13 million for an off-the-shelf touch-screen system and goes up to $64 million for a touch screen with additional features. The equipment is only about one-half of an upgrade's cost, which typically includes testing, training and warehousing costs, Hawkins said.Still, Unisys and other systems integrators with an eye on the market will have to prove themselves to county officials who are wary of newcomers. New companies entering the market will need to understand the election process before they can help local governments, said Jane Hague, president of the National Association of Counties and council member of King County, Wash.State and local election officials are sure to welcome large companies into the business if they can provide strong customer service for the systems they build, install and maintain, said Hoffman. But she warned that it might be a couple of years before those now entering the field have their first sales."If they want to get in for quick money, it is not a good idea," she said.

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