Clerk: ‘It was the perfect storm; I’m sorry’

The county’s top election official is apologizing to voters for what happened on Election Day, but the problem — a connection error with a vendor’s e-poll books — isn’t something she could have anticipated or prevented, she said.

Election Systems & Software, the county’s election vendor for 15 years, assured Johnson County Clerk Sue Ann Misiniec everything was in working order after a similar error occurred during the May primary election. Officials didn’t notice any problems during early voting, which had a heavier turnout than its ever had. And the equipment passed every local, state and federal test required, she said.

But on Election Day, CentralPoint, a software application that allows for synchronizing of poll book data across the county, slowed down, ES&S said in a statement. At times, the system froze for 20 to 30 minutes. That meant poll workers weren’t able to check voters in, which is why several voting machines sat empty and voters stood in lines for up to three hours.

The election board considered asking the court for an emergency injunction to extend voting hours, but ultimately decided not to once the problem was fixed. One voter did hire an attorney and file an injunction, but it was denied because it was submitted minutes before the polls were scheduled to close.

“We’re truly, truly sorry. We obviously wish it hadn’t happened. I am so sorry if someone feels that their vote was disenfranchised. But I’m also sorry so many people waited until Election Day to vote, even though I know it’s a conviction to do so,” Misiniec said.

She has repeatedly urged voters to vote early for their convenience, and because unforeseen problems could arise on Election Day. She said before the election and this week that she has a hard time pitying the people who stand in line for hours or don’t have a chance to vote on Election Day when they had so many opportunities to vote leading up to it.

“I really think the board made the right decision not to extend hours, because that may have caused even more problems.”

The company hasn’t offered more than a written statement to the Daily Journal or the clerk’s office, said Misiniec, who has talked to Jeremy Burton, Indiana’s sales manager for ES&S, but he is just as saddened as she is, she said.

“They’re very unhappy and take responsibility for this. But we also had this issue in the spring. It wasn’t to this extent, obviously, because our volume wasn’t nearly as high. They kept telling us it was on our end, but we knew it wasn’t on our end because we had multiple servers at the various locations, so it could not have been on our end,” she said.

“Later, they verified it was on their end and assured us it was all taken care of. I think — and I’m not really defending them — but I think they did think they had it taken care of. What they didn’t anticipate, and this is just my opinion, is the volume (of voters) that we saw nationwide. It was the perfect storm.”

One explanation ES&S has offered the county is as more and more sites came online, the system got more and more bogged down.

Locally, everything was running smoothly from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.

At 9 a.m., all counties across the country — included those on the west coast — were online. ES&S services 3,000 jurisdictions around the nation. Seven other counties in Indiana use ES&S, including Brown, Hancock and Monroe counties.

County officials have been discussing the need for new election equipment and software for a few years — the last time being this spring.

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.

The county will certainly look at other vendors moving forward, Misiniec said. But she doubts they will be able to secure a new system before the municipal election next year. A lot goes into that process, she said.

“I honestly cannot see that between now and May we’ll be able to purchase new equipment,” Misiniec said.

County officials, including newly elected Clerk Trena McLaughlin, appointed election board members and county commissioners, will want to consider all the options, she said. They would likely want to see several presentations from different vendors before they would make a decision, and then they would have to find the money in the budget, which is already done for next year, to purchase new equipment.

Once it was purchased, officials and poll workers would have to be trained well before an impending election, and all of the equipment would have to be tested and certified, which isn’t a simple process, she said.

It would take several months, and voting in the primary election starts in five months.

But the county is going to have to do something before the 2020 presidential election, especially if this election was any indication as to the possible turnout, Misiniec said.

“We don’t have enough equipment — voting machines or e-poll books — to run an election of that magnitude. So if we don’t do something before then, it is going to be cumbersome,” she said.

“It is frustrating that we seem to put so many things before new voting (equipment). I know some of the thinking is they’re only used twice a year, so how can we justify spending millions of dollars on something like that? Well,” Misiniec said and then paused.

The county’s contract with ES&S continues through the 2019 election, election board attorney Steve Huddleston said.

“Generally speaking, with contracts, if somebody is supposed to do A, B and C and they don’t do A, B and C, that opens the door for negotiations of ways to get out,” Huddleston said.

Several voters and officials brought up the need for some sort of backup, something the county hasn’t considered before. Misiniec isn’t sure it’s even possible, she said.

“Could we have a backup? I don’t know — unless we purchased extra e-poll books from a different vendor — that there is such a thing,” she said.

The county has to specify to the state exactly what system they are using before every election. All of the equipment has to be tested and certified.

“You would almost have to purchase a dual system. I can’t imagine you could do that site to site without having a blanket across all sites. Otherwise, you would be conducting two separate elections, which would raise a lot of questions. And I don’t know that we have the ability to have a back-up system. We can’t run two elections at the same time. I just think it has to be all one (system),” Misiniec said.

Even if they offered a paper ballot backup, if the e-poll books slowed down or stopped working, they wouldn’t be able to check voters in or make sure they get the right ballot for their precinct.

Others complained about the limited number of e-poll books at some vote centers compared to the number of voting machines. For example, The Nest in Greenwood had 20 voting machines, but only four e-poll books.

“If you added e-poll books, there would just be more (tablets) working slow,” she said.

Misiniec said the county election board will meet in the next couple of weeks to discuss what happened and what their next steps should be, she said.

“We need to. We really do. We need to address a lot of concerns,” Misiniec said.

ES&S has not responded to multiple requests for comment beyond written statements.