Officials: Election company deserves another chance

The Johnson County Board of Commissioners has decided to retain its long-time election vendor for this year’s elections, despite concerns from the public and those raised in a state investigatory report about the company’s failure to maintain records and secure enough system capacity to check in voters, and its suggestion that the county violate election laws.

The three elected commissioners met with the three-member election board on Wednesday to decide what, if any, action to take at this time regarding the vendor, Election Systems and Software. Together, those six county officials, including County Clerk Trena McLaughlin, are the key decision makers when it comes to elections that affect nearly 104,000 registered voters and dozens of elected officials.

The county’s contract with the company expires at the end of the year, but the commissioners could have chosen to terminate it early and select a new vendor.

The county’s attorneys will work with Election Systems and Software attorneys before the primary election to add requirements to that contract, such as providing appropriate documentation of all tests that are conducted, doing electronic poll book exercises and training local election officials to resolve technical problems leading up to an election. These changes to the original contract were either suggested by the state, recommended by the election board or promised by the company.

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Election Systems and Software will follow every requirement and recommendation laid out by state and county officials, said Victor Williams, the company’s vice president and general manager.

At least one commissioner said he thought it’s too late to change vendors before this year’s primary election, which is less than four months away.

But the commissioners do have the power and ability to make a switch before then, McLaughlin said.

The election board presented the commissioners with two options: explore a new vendor that meets all of the state and county requirements and recommendations, or stick with Election Systems and Software and amend the contract to include those same requirements and recommendations, as well as the promises the company has made to the county. For example, Electronic Systems and Software agreed to replace faulty electronic poll books, give the county 100 free voting machines — which are outdated but not what failed on Election Day — and refund some of its software fees.

The commissioners voted 3 – 0 to move forward to work things out with the vendor.

"I think at this time we’re looking at trying to recount details with ES and S," commissioner Brian Baird said. "At least we’re moving forward."

County election officials are taking other steps to improve voting on Election Day and during early voting as soon as the May primary, such as adding more vote centers and poll workers, McLaughlin said.

The problem on Election Day was that for about an hour, voters were checked in locally, meaning at the vote center where they were casting a ballot, but not in the county-wide system that would let other vote centers see that a resident had already cast a ballot, the county has said. Once that system was working again, information on all voters who had cast ballots was uploaded and available at all the voting sites.

But the investigatory report said that Election Systems and Software "performed" and "employed" a work-around that disconnected the tablets from the server entirely, which would have sped up the lines but is against the law, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. That would have made it possible for voters to cast more than one ballot at more than one location.

‘Have you ever not made a mistake in your life?’

The commissioners asked for public comment after taking a vote to have the attorneys work on adding requirements to the contract.

Four residents spoke against the county’s decision to stick with the company that left all of them waiting in lines for upwards of two hours even before Election Day. Some of them waited in multiple lines at multiple vote centers during early voting, and said the slowdown was obvious before Election Day.

They were also frustrated these boards don’t allow the public to comment before they make decisions.

"I’m still having a problem right now, today, in that the Board of Commissioners has already made a decision and voted on it and then you ask for public comment. This is useless because you’ve already voted," said Dick Huber, who also addressed officials during an election board meeting last week.

"This is one of the worst voting experiences I’ve ever had in my lifetime," Huber said. "I’m of the opinion that ES and S said, ‘Here’s how we can fix the problem, but it’s illegal.’ And then you’re wanting to let that same outfit run the next election?"

No one knows what the final Secretary of State’s Office report will say, or if it will concur with the preliminary report that was released to the public two weeks ago, Baird said.

In December, the Secretary of State’s Office ordered an investigation into the work Election Systems and Software did in seven Indiana counties, including Johnson, last year. Ball State’s Voting System Technical Oversight Program, which certifies election equipment and software throughout the state, conducted that investigation, and the Secretary of State released a 20-page report outlining numerous, specific problems and violations of the law.

It is unclear if the Secretary of State will issue another report.

"If another report is published, it will be posted there (on the office’s website). At this point, I am unsure when that will happen, if it happens," said Ian Hauer, the Secretary of State’s acting communications director.

Local election officials and Election Systems and Software both said they are waiting on a final report.

"What we’re voting on is continued discussion with ES and S. I don’t think anybody deserves less than that. Have you ever not made a mistake in your life? People make mistakes. Things happen. We have to try to work the best that we can to figure out what those mistakes are and see if those mistakes can be quickly and permanently corrected and move forward," Baird said to Huber.

"We’re not saying we’re staying with ES and S at all. That’s all up for discussion. But we’re going to allow our legal counsel to go through everything that’s been given to us … and let them figure this thing out, and see what direction they recommend that we look at. I can’t make that decision here today."

‘There are voting issues in this county’

Karen Lunsford, a resident of White River Township, read through findings in the Secretary of State’s preliminary report, including:
<li>Problems with voting in Johnson County in May 2018 and in early voting in the fall in Howard County were not reported to VSTOP, which is required.</li>
<li>Other Indiana counties use ES and S and had problems during 2018 voting. VSTOP was not informed until inquiring during the Johnson County investigation, which is a violation of Indiana law. The other counties are Carroll, Brown, Howard, Elkhart, Hancock, Monroe and Porter counties.</li>
<li>An ES and S official had learned about the potential for a problem in Johnson County on Election Day during early voting, but it had been determined that it was likely too late to implement a fix. The county was not informed of the issue.</li>
<li>Logs that would show electronic activity, diagnostics, access and performance on Election Day were not saved by ES and S or Microsoft. State and federal guidelines say that all election-related materials must be saved for 22 months.</li>
<li>Results from tests during the May primary were not saved. ES and S told the investigators that the company "is certain load tests were performed prior to the May primary, however those results are not retained."</li>
<li>Server records show an abnormally large number of error codes on Election Day in November, much higher than from the primary election.</li>
<li>The Election Day error, the investigation determined, was with the vendor’s cloud service, Microsoft Azure Web Application Firewall. ES and S made the switch from the Amazon Web Service, or AWS, in October 2017, and the county experienced similar problems in both the May primary and the November general elections. VSTOP had not been informed, as required, of this change in the cloud service.</li>
"It seems to me that there is no backup, no way to check voting when there are a lot of irregularities like this. Things should be done. I think that there’s a lot more to be considered when you decide whether or not you’re going to use ES and S," Lunsford said.

"It’s a voting issue that’s the problem, so don’t say we didn’t have any problems, don’t say you’re doing everything you can. There are voting issues in this county and it’s not fair that people who had to leave didn’t have a chance to come back and vote. That was wrong. Period."

Baird said that the county has satellite voting in the weeks leading up to the election, and that early voting went smoothly.

"We go out of our way to make sure people have the opportunity to vote in Johnson County. Those people who wait until the actual Election Day encountered some problems, but those people who did not, did not encounter those problems," Baird said.

He said he hadn’t heard of any problems during early voting, but all four residents who came to Wednesday’s meeting voted early and had to wait for extended periods of time.

"I didn’t experience any issues. I hadn’t talked to anyone who experienced any issues until today. This is the first I’ve heard that there were any issues (during early voting)," Baird said.

"Wow," Karen’s husband, Chuck Lunsford, said.

"It’s amazing that you have not," Karen Lunsford said.

Baird received 111 phone calls on Election Day, he said, but he didn’t receive any prior to Nov. 6.

More information wanted

Chuck Lunsford is also frustrated with what he sees as a lack of transparency between the county and the public. Although most documents related to the Election Day snafu are public record, the public hasn’t seen them, doesn’t know how to access them and details aren’t usually shared during public meetings, he said.

Baird said the county is doing what it can for now.

"A lot of things get sensationalized, and until we get the final report, ES and S is going to be accountable and responsible to the state for tending to those issues," Baird said.

"Like anything else, if you’re found to have done something incorrectly, you correct it, you move on, and we have to be the same way. Everybody makes mistakes. Let’s face it. Mistakes happen. I’m not perfect and I don’t expect them to be perfect either. So as long as they’re working with the state and they’re correcting the issues that the state has that come out in the final report … I think they should be given the opportunity to correct those."

Electronic Systems and Software has replaced Johnson County’s account manager, or customer service representative, said Jeremy Burton, Indiana’s sale representative for the company.

So far, no other action has been taken internally, Williams said.

"We are waiting for the full report, with appendices and whatnot, to examine it and make any further comments and to ultimately ensure that we are in compliance with Indiana law," said Williams, the company’s vice president.

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Here is a look at the county officials responsible for making decisions related to elections and voting in Johnson County:

<strong>County clerk</strong>

The county’s top election official, County Clerk Trena McLaughlin, has a hand in all election and voting decisions that are made. She, along with the Election Board, makes recommendations about how many vote centers should be open on Election Day and during early voting, and decides how many poll workers will staff those and how those paid volunteers will be trained. She is also in charge of the county’s voter registration office, which is responsible for getting voters registered, making sure they have the right ballots and tabulating all votes — including those that were cast early — on Election Day. She is a voting member of the Election Board.

<strong>Election Board</strong>

The Election Board is made up of three members — the county clerk, a Republican-nominated representative and a Democratic-nominated representative. The county’s two major parties nominate them. The Republican member is Phil Barrow. The Democratic member is Cindy Rapp. Together, they make most decisions related to voting and how each election will operate, including how much equipment will be set up at each vote center and the locations of vote centers. The election board must make recommendations to the county commissioners regarding anything that requires money. Election board members, besides the clerk, do not have term limits.

<strong>Board of Commissioners</strong>

The county’s Board of Commissioners is made up of three elected members — Brian Baird, Ron West and Kevin Walls. The board has final say on approving contracts or buying new equipment. That means it is up to the commissioners how much money is set aside in its annual budget for elections. They also have final say on who the county’s election vendor is, and how much money the county spends on equipment, software and people. Voters elect the county commissioners, who do not have term limits.

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"Like anything else, if you’re found to have done something incorrectly, you correct it, you move on, and we have to be the same way. Everybody makes mistakes. Let’s face it. Mistakes happen. I’m not perfect and I don’t expect them to be perfect either. So as long as they’re working with the state and they’re correcting the issues that the state has that come out in the final report … I think they should be given the opportunity to correct those."

– Brian Baird, county commissioner