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Election 2006: ‘A Royal Mess’ PDF  | Print |  Email
By Warren Watkins, The Daily Citizen   
June 10, 2006

White County, Arkansas Election Commissioner claims state advised to break the law

 

This article appeared in The Searcy Daily Citizen on June 5, 2006. It is reposted here with permission of the publisher.

 

White County election officials are trying to untangle red tape, work around ineptitude by a private contractor and follow the advice of a seemingly helpless state office as they attempt to continue the election of 2006.

 

Last month’s primary election was conducted in the county with a few minor problems, but early voting began with homemade paper ballots being used instead of the new iVotronic electronic voting machines supplied by Election Systems and Software (ES&S). Personal Electronic Ballots (PEBs) due to be delivered to the White County Election Commission before last Tuesday never arrived, and the paper ballots were printed by the commission as a stop-gap measure.

When the PEBs finally arrived Friday, they were not useable.

White County Election Commissioner Norm Southerland sent an e-mail to Charlie Daniels, Arkansas secretary of state, sharing his analysis of the current state of affairs.

 

"Just a note to make sure you understand that the election business with ES&S has been, and is still a mess," Southerland wrote. "The counties managed to pull off the primary election by doing things they shouldn't have to do, but now we’re doing it again for the runoff. Here we are, a week into early voting, and still no paper ballots or correct PEBs from the contractor. The time schedules set forth in the state law are not new. They haven't changed since the contract process started, or the award of the contract to ES&S."

Southerland said the frustration with Daniel’s office and its management of the ES&S effort is high in the counties.

"Someone needs to get a grip on this situation and fix it now," Southerland said. "Start-up problems are to be expected, but the lack of support we saw in the primary is a foretelling of worse to come this fall when the whole country will be voting on ES&S systems."

 

 

"The situation has been a royal mess," Tanya Burleson, White County Clerk, said. "Our PEB's that were received were wrong. We have no absentee ballots. We can send ballots like we are using for early voting, but ES&S was supposed to have paper ballots to us by Friday and no ballots have been received. It is definitely a mess."

Southerland pointed to lack of relationships and poor attitudes as two of the major obstacles.

"The equipment alone is not the problem," Southerland wrote. "The support from the contractor and the management by your office appears to be a large part of the problem. At least that is how it appears out here where the elections take place. Telling us to ‘violate the law’ by printing up unofficial ballots to use, and ignore multiple provisions of the state election laws doesn’t give us much confidence that this whole process is under control."

Southerland is the Republican representative on the county election commission and forecasted more problems with the system in the future.

"If this is the best we can do now, we’re in big trouble this fall," Southerland wrote.

White County Election Commissioner John Nunnally has exchanged e-mails with Janet Harris in the Secretary of State’s office.

"ES&S has now proven in four states that they are unable to meet deadlines for the delivery of programming, regardless of the time period they have to do the work," Nunnally wrote.

Saying he has not received anything from ES&S that was correct on the first try, Nunnally said PEBs were arriving so late that officials had no opportunity to test and perhaps correct them, making it difficult to notify the press and candidates of official meetings or activities.

Harris responded by saying the same issue has arisen across the state.

"ES&S even had the gall to show up Friday and tell me they had already done all the testing on my PEB’s ‘to save me time," Nunnally wrote. "That’s a violation of the law, and besides that, on what grounds would I trust their testing?"

Because ES&S is the only supplier of machines and support services, they have a monopoly on the election.

"ES&S is set up to box us into using their proprietary services for election preparation," Nunnally wrote. "They are doing this in every state they sell. They don’t have the resources to meet the needs for these services and that is verifiable fact at this point. This cannot continue."

Nunnally has no confidence the problems will be fixed before the general election.

"November is going to be a massive train wreck," Nunnally wrote. "Getting a bunch of lawyers together to come up with financial ‘damages’ settlement won’t fix anything."

Because he has been doing the actual work in the election, Nunnally has a unique perspective on how to proceed from here.

"ES&S needs to be required to certify at least ten different Arkansas private printers around the state to produce their paper ballots," Nunnally said. "This needs to be done before the school election in September so we can make arrangements to get ballots printed locally and get everyone familiar with the process."

Harris agreed, and wrote that "relying on local printers is far more convenient, but they do need to be clear on process and procedures. ES&S failed to manage that change very well and it manifested itself during the primary."

Nunnally said ES&S should give discounts on their on-demand ballot printers so counties who don’t need thousands of paper ballots can do their own.

A local programming office should also be established and staffed by ES&S, Nunnally said. Currently, ES&S is the only entity that can do programming, excluding even the state of Arkansas.

Harris told Nunnally that if the state were to pay for a proprietary license "programming charges could be dramatically reduced." There has been discussion of creating an Election Technology office within the State Department of Information Systems, he said.

Training of local officials has been lacking as well, Nunnally wrote to Harris.

"ES&S needs to get in here and train those of us who bought the full programming package, and they need to send someone to do the training that knows what they are doing," Nunnally wrote. "The guy they sent to do the training on the Unity package couldn’t even read the documentation correctly. He was totally unprepared."

Harris agreed that "the Unity training provided prior to May 23 was incomplete and largely ineffective so we will be requiring more sessions over the summer by competent trainers who can work one-on-one with our counties."

Nunnally said he wanted the state’s dependence on ES&S severed before November, and Harris agreed.

"Do you think ES&S keeps enough well trained people on their staff to program nationwide, general elections every month? Of course not!" Nunnally wrote. “So who is going to be doing the programming in October for the general elections? Either there are going to be far too few trained people to get the job done, or we are going to have our most critical election programmed by StaffMark, Kelly Girl, and illegal aliens."

Harris wrote that she did not want to see Arkansas in a position again to compete with other, larger states for ES&S resources.

Nunnally shared his frustration with the election problems, and with the secretary of state’s office to study the situation and fix the system before November.

"Holding your review after the runoff is just dandy, but please don’t waste your time and jeopardize our general election by trying to fix a system that is totally irrational," Nunnally wrote.

Harris’ response showed her lack of confidence in ES&S.

"They can’t do programming for the entire nation out of Omaha and meet everyone’s needs," Harris wrote. "If they don’t provide local solutions and outsource as much of it as possible, we are going to be doing our National election on Microsoft Word ballots and counting them by hand well into 2007."

Nunnally said he felt the response time from ES&S in November will be directly proportional to each state’s electoral votes.

"They know where their bread is buttered and Arkansas is a very, very small part of the loaf," Harris responded.

Election officials have been told to call 800-ESS-VOTE when problems occur, but Nunnally said it was not an acceptable solution.

"In the past, your contact was Karen Hoyt-Stewart, project manager," Miller responded. "Ms. Hoyt-Stewart proved unresponsive to both the counties and to our office. She is no longer the project manager and has been replaced."

Nunnally pleaded with the secretary of state’s office to be able to get into the ES&S programming.

"Would someone please find out the password to the ES&S software that keeps me from producing my own ballots and send that to me?" Nunnally wrote. "I can't do any harm trying to produce my own, right or wrong. Wrong is all I've gotten from ES&S so far, so there's a chance I just might do better. It was pretty infuriating to spend two hours learning how to build a database only to find out that I had been password locked out of any attempt to produce a ballot. That just poured fuel on my fire."

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