Settlement aims to prevent ES&S voting machine monopoly

The nation's largest voting machine company probably won't be called a monopoly for much longer in Florida and other states.

Under a proposed settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and nine states that include Florida, Election Systems & Software will divest itself of its hardware, software and other assets it acquired after the $5 million purchase of Premier Election Solutions, a division of Diebold Inc.

The state and federal governments released the draft settlement agreement Monday — on the same day that the Justice Department and a group of attorneys general from states including Florida filed a civil antitrust suit in Washington federal court.

The ES&S merger announced last fall sparked an uproar in the elections world because it would have made the Nebraska company the sole voting machine provider in 65 of Florida's 67 counties. About 92 percent of Florida's 11.2 million voters would have cast ballots this year on ES&S machines, which would have been in nearly 70 percent of the nation's precincts.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum hailed the announced settlement — which has yet to be approved by a federal judge — as a win for consumers. McCollum said he feared a monopoly with the scope of the ES&S case would have been bad for democracy.

"This divestiture action will provide greater competition, which is critical to ensure that vendors continue to develop accurate, reliable and secure systems, and provide those systems to our election administrators at competitive prices," McCollum said in a statement Monday.

Under the settlement agreement, ES&S has 60 days from the date of the final, signed order to get rid of most of the property it acquired from Diebold. It's unclear who will buy the company or what effect that turnover will have heading into this election season. In Florida, primaries are set for August.

At first, ES&S dodged questions about whether the deal could run afoul of antitrust laws. But then it began negotiating with the Department of Justice on the divestiture plan. ES&S didn't say it would sign the agreement, though it acknowledged it looked forward to a "resolution" soon.

"For over 30 years, our focus has been on supporting the election-related needs of the jurisdictions and customers we serve," the company said in a statement. "Most importantly, ES&S supported more than 1,000 smooth-running election events for former Premier customers since the acquisition in September 2009."

But election supervisors like Leon County's Ion Sancho said the ES&S deal could have led to bad service for too much money.

"I'm happy that we'll have choice in the elections process," Sancho said.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

Settlement aims to prevent ES&S voting machine monopoly 03/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 8, 2010 11:17pm]

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