Over protest from competitor who says county may be overspending, Johnson County board awards $10.5 million contract to ES&S for new voting machines

Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker at a 2017 canvass board meeting.

Three years after the request for proposal went out — but just a week after the contract was available for public review — the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved the expenditure of $10.5 million on 2,100 new electronic voting machines and associated support and maintenance.

The new machines will be put into service for the August primary and are expected to be used in Johnson County for more than a decade.

The vote to approve the contract with Election Systems & Software LLC  came over the protest of Henry M. Adkins and Son, Inc, a vendor that had put in a competing bid for the project.

Johnson County will deploy the new ExpressVote machines for the August primary.

Brad Bryant, representing that company and an affiliated equipment manufacturer, noted that the group had felt compelled to file a formal letter of complaint about the county’s process for selecting the ES&S bid. At issue, Bryant said, was the long delay between the issuance of the request for proposals for the new voting equipment in 2015 and the announcement just last week that the Election Office was recommending ES&S’s ExpressVote system.

“We don’t have any experience issuing letters like that, protesting counties’ procedures…This is a first for us,” he said. “We think that the RFP process is designed to elicit the latest and greatest services from any interested vendor — and possibly more important the best pricing. We wonder if the county is getting the best deal it can get if it purchases off of a three year old RFP.”

The election office delayed the process of vetting the proposals it received because of a transition in the election commissioner’s office after Brian Newby left to take a position in the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and Ronnie Metsker was appointed to the position. Newby left behind an ethics scandal after it was revealed he was having an affair with a woman he promoted and was accused of improperly using election office resources. County officials have said that Metsker and his team found they needed to focus on other “priorities” after they took over the office — they conducted an extensive audit of the department’s finances during Newby’s tenure — forcing the delay in the voting machine purchase process.

The original 2015 RFP was issued jointly with Shawnee, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties in an effort to drive the cost of machines down for each. Sedgwick county selected ES&S as its vendor more than a year ago. Bryant said it appeared Johnson County was being influenced by that decision and that it was not considering the current state of the market.

“Our equipment has mostly changed since 2015,” Bryant said, noting that their new system has been certified by the state and federal government and that they’ve had two price reductions since 2015.

Susan Warren, a Johnson County resident who works as a control and software engineer, voiced concerns about the ES&S system ahead of the vote as well, echoing some of the critiques national election integrity advocates have about the ExpressVote system.

“Voters don’t know how to read barcodes, so they are not going to be able verify that the barcode and the name that they voted match,” she said.

But members of the commission said they were confident in the election office’s analysis of the proposals and that they believe the ES&S system will be secure and efficient.

County Commission Chair Ed Eilert defended the county’s process.

Asked for comment about the awarding of the contract following the vote, County Chair Ed Eilert said the election office had gone through a rigorous process and that the ES&S equipment had been certified as secure at several levels.

“The county’s new voting machines have been rigorously tested and certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and certified by the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office,” Eilert said. “As a key component, the Board of County Commissioners today approved voting machines that will feature a voter-verifiable paper ballot, creating a tracking system available for election audits.”

Commissioner Jim Allen said he understood the concerns of people who argue that only hand-marked paper ballots are secure. But, he said, voting machines like the ES&S system provide efficiencies that are important in a county with nearly 400,000 registered voters. He noted that the barcode-marked paper ballots, which also include an English summary of a voters’ selections, can be audited and verified for accuracy if concerns about the integrity of an election arise.

“I know some people aren’t going to be happy unless we’ve got voters marking paper ballots, and I understand that and see where they’re coming from,” Allen said. “But I think this kind of gives us the best of both worlds.”

None of the other commissioners responded to an invitation to comment on their votes.

Two board challengers critique process for voting on new machines

The board’s vote Monday appears to have brought into focus a contrast between the views of two incumbents and the candidates challenging them in November’s elections.

Becky Fast, who announced Thursday that she’s running against District 1 incumbent Ron Shaffer, and Janee’ Hanzlick, who is challenging District 4 incumbent Jason Osterhaus, said they believed the board had made the wrong decision.

“I’m concerned that Jason Osterhaus voted to spend $10.5 million of the taxpayers’ money without doing research into the best option or notifying and soliciting feedback from his constituents,” Hanzlick said. “As the former CEO of SAFEHOME, a $3.5 million nonprofit agency in Johnson County, I understand the importance of careful research and collaboration before making budget decisions. As County Commissioner, I will demand greater transparency, and I’ll be a fiscally responsible steward of our taxpayer dollars.”

Fast said she was not satisfied with the paper trail produced by the ExpressVote system.

“Barcodes are insecure because they are generated by software. A software-created process can always be altered by software,” she said. “Voters should not have to carry a barcode scanner to know how they voted. When making a $10 million dollar investment we owe it to the citizens to get it right the first time.”

LeEtta Felter, who is challenging District 5 incumbent Michael Ashcraft, however, said she supported the board’s choice.

“I was impressed by the effort on Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker’s part and I am comfortable with the selection of the ES&S system. The system been vetted through a rigorous process and tested vigilantly,” she said. “I do not have major concerns related to the barcode identification being used on the paper ballot vs the voters name. I actually prefer a barcode due to privacy right issues. It is my understanding that a person who wants to be able to track their vote could keep a photo of the bar code and have it as reference for any future concerns.”