Secretary of State investigating county election vendor

The Indiana Secretary of State has launched an investigation into what happened on Election Day in Johnson County.

The state agency is investigating the county’s election vendor, ES&S, which has been blamed for a technical glitch on Nov. 6 that left some voters in Johnson County waiting in lines for more than three hours and others not voting at all. Six other counties, including nearby Brown, Hancock and Monroe, experienced the glitch as well, and are also part of that investigation, county clerk Sue Ann Misiniec said.

“The Secretary of State’s office is looking into issues with electronic poll books in Johnson County on Election Day. We are currently gathering information and conducting interviews with the parties involved to determine the root cause of the problem,” Secretary of State Connie Lawson said in a statement on Tuesday.

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The state office would not comment further about when the investigation started, what has been learned so far or possible outcomes.

Up until Tuesday, Misiniec had said that ES&S had done nothing more than apologize for what happened on Election Day, and that the election board, which she serves on and appoints members to, was considering calling for an outside review of the voting systems and verification of the information given to the county by the vendor about what caused the problems.

On Tuesday, she said the election board had reached out to the Secretary of State’s office for help reviewing the system, but the state office decided to handle the investigation itself, Misiniec said.

She was informed of the investigation in a letter on Friday.

The Secretary of State’s Office has asked Ball State’s Voting System Technical Oversight Program to review the county’s equipment, said Valerie Warycha, spokeswoman for the secretary of state.

The Ball State team advises the Indiana Secretary of State and the Indiana Election Commission on the certification of voting machines and electronic poll books in Indiana. It also keeps a database of all voting machines used in Indiana and reports on the best practices for operation of election equipment and poll worker training, according to its website.

The Ball State program is already used by the county to test and certify its equipment.

On Election Day, electronic poll books, which are used to check in voters before they cast a ballot, kept freezing. Each time that happened, nobody could sign in to vote. Several voting machines were left empty and lines were out the door at several vote centers as voting came to a standstill or was sporadic for several hours.

All three county commissioners were unaware an investigation was taking place, they said Tuesday.

“It’s basically under her (Misiniec) purview to do that. I’m sure we’ll be brought into the loop at some point,” commissioner Kevin Walls said.

“We’re waiting until after the first of the year when Trena (McLaughlin, county clerk-elect) takes over, then we’ll meet with the clerk and probably the election board to go over the situation,” commissioner Ron West said.

So far, no changes have been proposed for the system that failed voters more than a month ago.

Election vendor has offered free equipment

Misiniec has said since the election that ES&S has apologized for what happened.

But on Tuesday, she released a letter from the national election equipment vendor, dated Nov. 20, where the company said it plans to refund the county money and provide free election equipment.

In the letter to Misiniec, the vendor offered the county a partial refund and 50 free voting machines to replace several that are beyond repair. The vendor also said members of its executive team wanted to visit the election board in person before the end of the year to provide an update on the company’s own investigation into what happened, as well as the status of each promise made in the letter.

Misiniec said she doesn’t anticipate the county will end its contract with ES&S any time soon. The current contract is slated to end in November, after the 2019 election. But it’s open to negotiations, and does not outline any penalties for ending the contract.

The glitch occurred in both the November and May elections, she said. The problems weren’t as noticeable in the primary due to fewer voters casting ballots. But the county was assured it would not happen again in November.

Misiniec isn’t sure when the state’s investigation will be complete, but she’s hoping it’s soon, she said.

“If they can’t give us some good clear answers, we’ve got to seek other options for our upcoming election,” she said.

‘All apologies accepted’

Before the Secretary of State launched its investigation, the election board was weighing its options, Misiniec said.

“We want to have an outside source — we don’t know who yet — verify that there is not an additional problem at play here. We’re seeking expertise, I guess, that we don’t have at this time. We want to make sure we’ve got outside assurance that we won’t have this glitch again,” she said.

The e-poll books are six years old, much younger than the county’s voting machines, which besides irreplaceable parts, the county has not had any problems with since they bought them 17 years ago. The county bought the e-poll books in 2012 when they made the switch to vote centers, and had to borrow new ones from ES&S during the 2016 election, Misiniec said.

“We have a long history with ES&S. They’ve been very generous and good to us. They helped us out a lot when we made the switch to vote centers. So I can’t really be all up in arms against ES&S,” she said.

“I just want to set the record straight about that. I know there are several others who are disappointed. But they’ve had a great reputation with us, so all apologies accepted.”

The county commissioners, who make decisions regarding elections and are tasked with deciding which equipment to buy and when to buy it, have not discussed what happened on Election Day. Commissioner Brian Baird was involved in conversations with the clerk’s office, the election board and ES&S on Election Day. He has not been apart of any conversations since, he said.

The commissioners are well aware of the problems, Misiniec said.

“I guess the good thing to come out of all of this is I’ve been poking the bear for years, saying ‘hey, we’ve got to look at this.’ But there never seems to be enough money,” she said.

It is the responsibility of the clerk’s office to ask the commissioners to consider or purchase new voting equipment or contracts with vendors.