Commissioner says county should seek other voting options

One county commissioner said changes have to be made to the county’s voting system after a widespread glitch on Election Day left some voters waiting in line for 3 hours, and others not casting ballots at all.

Ron West said he and the other two members of the Board of Commissioners should consider dissolving a contract with Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, the county’s vendor responsible for the connectivity issue with the system’s electronic poll books, which are used to check people in before they vote.

“I’m sure this is going to be an eye opener for them. I’m not sure they won’t suffer some sort of punitive measure from those people who couldn’t vote,” West said Wednesday morning.

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“Based on what happened yesterday, I think we could get out of that contract by failure to perform on their part. Most contracts like that are open-ended.”

West said the county needs a backup voting system, which hasn’t been discussed previously but should be now.

“We never really considered a backup because we felt like the system we had in place would work,” he said.

“Here’s the real meat of the whole thing. We encourage people to get out and vote. We want everybody to do it, but we need to accommodate them. We’re going to have to figure out how to do that and have some sort of a backup.”

But officials aren’t sure what that backup would look like. They could offer paper ballots — similar to what they use for absentee and overseas voters.

But at the vote centers, without using the tablets, there would be no way to tell if someone had already voted or which ballot to give them, which is what happened on Tuesday.

“When you get into paper ballot voting, you also have to have a separate secured area,” West said.

County officials have been discussing new election equipment and software for a few years — the last time being this spring. The system the county currently uses is 15 years old.

But the three-member elected Board of Commissioners voted down a proposal in August of 2017 for a new system. The elected county clerk and an appointed election board manage how elections are conducted in the county, but the commissioners must approve any big ticket expenses, such as a new voting system, which could cost upwards of $1 million.

The latest proposal for new equipment would have also been purchased and serviced through ES&S. The county pays the vendor about $100,000 a year for their services.

ES&S offered to provide the e-poll books, which cost $2,000 each, to the county for free last year if they purchased a new system, and gave a presentation to the commissioners about the equipment and software available for purchase. The biggest change with the new system would have been that it also keeps a paper log of each vote.

“We discussed it back in the spring, but it never really went anywhere,” West said. “We just felt like we could get another year or two out of the machines.”

County commissioners decided to wait to purchase a new system for several reasons, he said.

ES&S told them some new technology was on the horizon, which they wanted to see before they made a decision, West said. They were also waiting to see if the state or federal government would hand down more mandates in terms of the type of equipment counties are required to use. If they did that, there would likely be state or federal dollars available to help pay for a new system.

“We thought, let’s just kind of do a wait and see — see where the technology goes, see where the government goes,” he said.

Their main concerns last year were how to pay for the $1.1 million system and when to purchase it.

One option they considered was phasing in a new system by spreading out the purchase over the course of several years, which is what they did when they bought the current system — including 450 voting machines — in 2003 for $2.4 million, most of which came from the county’s savings.

But they feared that would create logistical concerns because election officials would have to gather and consolidate data from multiple machines running separate programs.

This time, they would only need to buy about 250 machines because there are significantly fewer voting sites since the county moved to vote centers rather than voting at your neighborhood precinct. They also could have saved money by trading in the old machines, but ultimately decided not to.

Last year, West favored waiting a year or two for the cost of the proposed equipment and software to go down.

The county clerk and her staff wanted to get the new system in time for the 2018 elections to allow voters to adjust to a new system before the next presidential election, but that didn’t happen.

“The public likes the touch-screen machines. We like them too, but they’re so old that we can’t get replacement parts anymore. They still work. That’s not a problem. But eventually we’re going to have to upgrade, so I’ve been poking the bear. We’re going to have to address this sooner or later, folks,” Clerk Sue Ann Misiniec said during a public test of the equipment on Oct. 8.

She was not available for comment on Wednesday.

Both candidates who ran for county clerk brought up the issue as well.

Trena McLaughlin, who was elected clerk on Tuesday, will be tasked with finding a way to secure and fund new voting machines that are needed to replace the current, outdated ones.

Last month, she said she was aware that getting new voting machines is a top priority in the clerk’s office. Her goal last month was to purchase new machines in the next year or two.

Election officials tested the system on Oct. 8, ahead of early voting and ahead of what would soon become a record-breaking midterm election in terms of turnout.

Testing the electronic poll books was not part of that process.

On Tuesday, the system started to slow at about 9 a.m., an issue that continued until nearly 3 p.m. Lines at several vote centers across the county were at a standstill for 20 to 30 minutes at a time while local officials and ES&S IT professionals worked to fix the problem.

The county experienced a similar problem during the primary election in the spring. But not nearly as many people were trying to vote at that time and county officials were assured it was fixed, Misiniec said.

On Wednesday, ES&S officials said the problem stemmed from CentralPoint, a software application that allows for synchronizing of poll book data across the county on Election Day.

“Mid-morning of Election Day the county experienced slower than normal voter check-in times when utilizing the poll books for voter look up. ES&S immediately began to troubleshoot the issue and quickly identified an issue with the functionality of a Microsoft service which caused a significant increase in voter check-in times,” ES&S said in a statement.

“ES&S engineers worked with Microsoft engineers to swiftly correct the issue, and ES&S engineers will be working with Microsoft to ensure that this issue does not occur in the future. This issue in no way impacted the tabulation or accuracy of the votes as it was not related to the voting machines.”

ES&S officials were not available for comment beyond issuing the written statement.