Three companies vie for county election job

Three companies want the job of running the county’s elections in terms of software and technology for the next five years.

Among the election vendors vying for the contract that’s expected to top $1 million is the vendor the county fired earlier this year after it failed thousands of voters during the November election.

Election Systems and Software, which provided equipment and services to the county for nearly two decades, is asking for another chance. But even if its bid is the lowest, the county is not obligated to select it. The Election Board specified in its request that it can reject certain vendors based on experience and qualifications. The board also added the following as a consideration when picking the next vendor: Strength and number of positive and negative references as well as first-hand experience with Johnson County and vote centers.

But the Election Board on Friday decided it would proceed with interviews and demonstrations from all three vendors, including ES and S.

Election Board attorney Stephen Huddleston pointed out that even if the board were to choose ES and S, and the county’s Board of Commissioners signed off on it, it would be all new equipment.

During the November election, a glitch in the electronic pollbooks left some voters waiting in lines for hours, and others not voting at all. It also led to an investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office, which found that ES and S violated state law with its proposed workaround.

Two other vendors submitted proposals as well: MicroVote, the local vendor that rented equipment and services to the county for this year’s municipal elections, and Chicago-based RBM Consulting, which was also in the running for this year’s elections.

Vendors had until July 2 to submit bids.

Next, the Election Board will request demonstrations of each vendor’s voting equipment. Again, the board is not obligated to do so. Those demonstrations are scheduled for Aug. 13, and will be open to the public.

As of now, there is no plan in place for next year’s presidential election, which is expected to produce a massive voter turnout, election officials have said.

Besides the deadline of being ready for next year’s presidential primary, the cost of the new equipment has to be figured into the 2020 budget, which will be set later this summer. It is expected to cost up to $1.6 million, which was the highest bid. The election board would not disclose which vendor bid the highest, or what any of the vendors bids were. Legally, it doesn’t have to.

The Election Board will choose the best vendor based on cost, qualifications and demonstrations, and bring its selection to the county’s Board of Commissioners for approval. The commissioners will enter into an agreement and sign the contract with the vendor, so they have final say.

County Clerk Trena McLaughlin is hoping for an outright purchase, she has said. But the commissioners encouraged her to look at other options as well, such as a lease-to-buy option, which would give the county a little more time to come up with the money.

The new contract will be for five years.

The commissioners are aware they don’t have much choice; the county has to have a vendor in place for next year; but they don’t know yet where the money to buy all new equipment is going to come from. It has not been budgeted for.

For years, the county put off purchasing new voting equipment due to the cost, despite several urges from election officials to find the money and make the move. That left the county’s previous election equipment old and outdated.

This year, the county is renting election equipment from MicroVote, which was a quick fix that was needed after the county fired ES and S in February. That equipment was praised during the May primary election, which saw a 10 percent voter turnout, and will be used again in November.

Election officials will review vendors’ proposals and interview them next month. A decision about what company to hire and what equipment to buy is expected in August.