Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, a candidate for secretary of state, said the office’s current election software contract encourages state auditors to outsource their ballot printing to a Minnesota company.

A contract with Election Systems & Software Inc., signed by Secretary of State Al Jaeger at the end of 2009, details the rates counties would be charged  for going with ESS’s partner printer Synergy Graphics versus the ballot printer of their choice.

“The secretary of state has taken away county control and replaced it with a top down approach,” that takes business away from North Dakota companies, Mock said.

Synergy, the partner ballot printing company, was bankrupt at the time the contract was signed, although that status was terminated days after the contract was signed.

In some cases ESS doubled the cost of services if counties did not use Synergy as their printer. In other cases fees were charged for using an alternative printing company when no cost was attached for using Synergy.

“Some of the smaller counties just don’t have the resources to pay all these extra fees,” Mock said.

Jaeger said he’s pleased with the arrangement because numerous elections have gone off without a hitch while using these services, but he was unaware Synergy was bankrupt.

“I was not aware that they were, all I know is we’re getting the services we’re paying for,” Jaeger said.

Jaeger said ESS is one of the few companies in the nation he can contract with, but it’s up to county auditors whether they want to contract with Synergy for printing.

Jaeger said the technology that allows ballots to be put online in advance of the election and that tracks the ballots as they are processed all comes from ESS.

But that same technology requires a lot from the printers as well as a certain type of stock and coding is needed so the ballot can be read correctly.

Because of the price of such ballots, many counties have switched to Synergy. Of the 53 counties in North Dakota, only three now use local printers: Burleigh, Stark and Ward.

Larry Berget, owner of The Printers in Bismarck, used to do printing for 14 nearby counties but has now lost all but two contracts, the ones for Burleigh and Ward counties.

That has cost him more than $54,000 in business.

Berget said he doesn’t mind losing to competitors if they’re in state, but the problem starts once that business goes over state lines. He said the secretary of state’s office should do more to incentivize working with local businesses.

Morton County, which used to contract locally, has switched to Synergy because of financial reasons, said County Auditor Paul Trauger.

To go local would have cost the county an extra $1,600, but  he said they would switch back  if it were cheaper.

“We don't print as many ballots as Burleigh, so there was a big financial factor in us going out of state,” Trauger said.

Jaeger said it comes down to economies of scale.

“Here’s a company that specializes in this and prints throughout the country, so they operate by volume,” he said.

In Bottineau County, they’ve switched to Synergy, “but we held off as long as possible,” said Auditor Mae Strike.

Strike said she found it easier to deal with her local printer because there was less paper work and red tape involved.

She’s still ordering other voting materials locally.

“We had good service (with Synergy), but I’d like to stay within North Dakota when they can do it too and have been working with us for a long time.”

The contract with ESS doesn’t end until 2013, and Mock said he wouldn’t be opposed to contracting with them again, but he would prefer a negotiation that does more for North Dakota businesses.

(Reach reporter Rebecca Beitsch at 250-8255 or 223-8482 or rebecca.beitsch@bismarcktribune.com.)