County to decide what to do about election vendor in coming week

With the primary election less than seven weeks away, county officials will decide in the coming week whether to stick with its long-time election vendor, which broke state election laws and disenfranchised voters in November.

The three-member county election board, including newly elected County Clerk Trena McLaughlin, met privately with the three-member Board of Commissioners on Monday to discuss what to do moving forward, after the Secretary of State’s Office released a report that placed all of the blame in last year’s election on Election Systems & Software, a vendor multiple Indiana counties depend on for voting equipment. The company has provided equipment, software and technology for Johnson County elections for nearly two decades.

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.

The election board will meet publicly on Friday — for the first time since the election — to decide whether to file a lawsuit against ES & S, which would be warranted according to the report, as well as look at other possible vendors the county could use.

Officials have said it is likely too late to do anything before the municipal primary on May 7, when voters will select a candidate for each party in contested races in their cities or towns.

McLaughlin said this week that she’s been talking with other clerks around the state about what systems they use and how much they cost. The county must also prepare for the massive presidential election in 2020.

Any recommendations the election board reaches on Friday will go before the county commissioners on Wednesday. The commissioners will decide what, if any, action to take.

If the county decides to go with another vendor, the process would take time.

Each potential vendor would need to present to McLaughlin, then to the commissioners, and the county would have to find the money in this year’s budget, which was completed before the November election.

New voting equipment is expected to cost upwards of $1 million.

Commissioner Ron West said days after the Nov. 6 election that they should consider dissolving a contract with ES & S, which was responsible for the connectivity issue with the system’s electronic poll books, which are used to check people in before they vote.

The recent report showed the company didn’t secure enough cloud storage to support the volume of people who wanted to vote, and the cost of that was at least one factor. It also revealed that the company knew there was a problem well before Election Day.

The workaround, which violated state law, allowed poll workers to check in voters locally at each site where electronic poll books had slowed or stopped working, which is what was causing the hold up, without logging the voter into the shared cloud system. This means voters could have cast more than one ballot.

County officials have been discussing new election equipment and software for years.

The commissioners voted down a proposal in August of 2017 for a new system, which would have also been purchased and serviced through ES & S, something the county may still consider.

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

ES & S told them some new technology was on the horizon, which they wanted to see before they made a decision. 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.

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.

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WHAT: Election board meeting

WHEN: 1:30 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Johnson County Courthouse Annex, 86 W. Court St., Franklin, lower level conference room (A)

WHY: To review Secretary of State report about ES & S and decide what to steps to take

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WHAT: County commissioners special public meeting

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Johnson County Courthouse Annex, 86 W. Court St., Franklin

WHY: Receive recommendations from the election board regarding what to do about ES & S, and decide what action to take