Why doesn’t anyone know what a voting machine costs?

We recently hosted a discussion on the Price of Voting Machines. Now an article in Politico gives the background story.

Politico: One Man’s Quest to Break Open the Secretive World of American Voting Machines <read>

It began to dawn on Caulfield, slowly at first, that the amount the public didn’t know about these companies was vast. Quarterly profits, regional market share, R&D budgets, even the number of employees—often, there was simply nothing. “Basic, basic data—the basic layout of the industry—was just not out there,” Caulfield recalls. “Eventually, we realized that it didn’t exist.”…

But by far, Caulfield’s most significant discovery was to put a figure on the total size of the industry. He estimated the entire revenue footprint of all the companies in the United States was $350 million. That meant the entire elections industry in the world’s richest democracy was about the peak size of the R&D department of the camera company GoPro. The private voting sector wasn’t like a secretive and well-heeled defense contractor. It was more like the manufacturers of arcade machines or jukeboxes, grasping for market share with a product they could sell at best once a decade.

Mark Lindeman, a longtime voting expert who leads Verified Voting, explained the difficulty this poses for election clerks whenever they attempt to buy a new fleet of voting machines. “Election officials have no way of knowing what a fair market price could possibly be,” Lindeman said. He compared it to a recent experience he had buying his car, a Chevy Volt. At the dealership, “My wife and I got run in circles, while we waited for the dealer to give a price that was sensible,” he said. “How did we know it was sensible? Well, we went to the Consumer Reports website and got an idea of what a fair market value would be.” He added, “Election officials have no way to do that.”…

In the data, Caulfield discovered clerks who were buying the same voting machines from the same company, but seeing significantly different discounts than their peers—sometimes in the same state. In California, Mono County and Placer County both purchased orders of Dominion equipment, including the ImageCast Evolution, a voting machine priced at $7,200. But Mono received a 5 percent discount off of its bottom-line order, while Placer, 128 miles away, saw a mark-off of nearly 25 percent. Volume didn’t necessarily matter, either: Dodge County, Wis. purchased the same ES&S machines that Polk County, Fla. did. Even though Polk County bought substantially more machines and equipment, Dodge got a discount seven times larger than Polk’s—a mismatch Caulfield spotted in other states, including Texas and Virginia…

A business model in which repair and maintenance costs are the most stable source of revenue might not, to put it delicately, create optimal incentives for designing hassle-free technology. In fact, as Caulfield and Coopersmith suggested, it might not be financially wise to regularly roll out new models at all…

Caulfield’s work points toward something more radical than perhaps even its author intended: a new reason to question the marriage of election administration and private industry. “What kinds of machines would we make if we declared this a public good, and had it produced in public laboratories?” Bollinger asked when I called him this spring, just before Caulfield’s report went public. He drew an analogy to the life sciences and human biology, sectors where the U.S. government has made hundreds of billions of dollars in public research investment. “We have public funding for all kinds of development of things. But we leave this—.” Bollinger cut himself off and laughed. “We leave this essential object and thing, which is so critical, to the free market?”…

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