County Commission candidates on the issues: Was awarding voting system contract to ES&S the right decision?

Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker held up a statement issued by ES&S taking responsibility for the failure of the reporting software during Tuesday’s elections.

The last day to register to vote for November’s elections is Tuesday — and advance voting by mail begins this week.

With Election Day fast approaching, we’ve been working to ensure Shawnee Mission area residents understand where the candidates stand on the issues facing our community.

A few weeks ago, we put out a call to readers for questions they’d like to hear the candidates running for Johnson County Board of County Commissioners answer. With that input, we developed a five-item candidate questionnaires — and all this week we’ll be running their responses.

Here’s question number one:

In May, the board of county commissioners unanimously approved awarding at $10.5 million contract to ES&S for 2,100 new voting machines. But the debut of the machines was marked by massive wait times after the never-before-fielded combination of hardware and software failed to generate results reports. Did the board make the right decision in awarding the contract to ES&S? Why or why not?

County Commission Chair

Ed Eilert (incumbent)

NO MONEY HAS BEEN PAID to the vendor on the voter system contract authorized in May 2017. Even though the system was certified by federal and state officials, the tabulating software did not perform as anticipated. The result was an unacceptable delay in reporting vote totals. The vendor, accepted responsibility for the software under performance and has corrected the software issue. The software correction has been tested more than once with data volumes comparable to a general election. Federal and state officials have certified the corrected system. However, no money has or will be paid on the contract until the system demonstrates the ability to perform as required in a real time situation, the General Election.

Trinette Waldrup

The Johnson County Election Board was dealing with the replacement of 15+yr old voting machines and software. The biggest concern was to get new machines and system(s) with a more advanced security level that still offered reliable, simple audit trails. ES&S is one of the largest and oldest election systems in the country. The criteria used for the selection was based on more than just price. Vendors and systems were reviewed by election personnel from more than three counties as Johnson joined Sedgwick and Shawnee County to make this selection. The selection process and choice is not the problem, the decisions after the authorization to purchase was. In my opinion, the issues are due to poor implementation and timing decisions. All the issues surrounding the election problems are tied to inadequate time to set up, test, and preparation. As Chair, I would have required a conditional agreement to purchase, and made sure that real-time, on-site testing was done before using them in an election. Proof of performance was the only condition, and that apparently failed. The short of it is they should not have been used for this election cycle.

District 1

Becky Fast

One of the most important functions of a county commissioner is to ensure secure and fair elections. We owe it to our citizens. Johnson County Commission moved without much discussion to quickly purchase equipment from a three-year-old request for proposal process. An updated competitive bid process could have possibly saved taxpayers a substantial amount of money.

In the end – Johnson Countians were the Guinea Pigs for a system never tested anywhere in the country. The software was just certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) on July 2, 2018 prior to the August primary. When taxpayers spend $10.5 million they deserve a voting system they know works and has a long-standing track record on election integrity. Federal and state officials have now signed off on a patched version of the software program that will power Johnson County’s voting system next month.

Despite being the last county in Kansas and reporting results 13 hours after the polls closed, the county chose to move forward with its contract to acquire 1000 more ExpressVote touchscreens. Not a single commissioner spoke out in favor of an independent investigation to make sure the new software is reporting the vote counts accurately and we don’t face similar problems in November. The Board of Commissioners must call for an outside audit prior to November 6th to ensure each machine and the master USB port matches the paper ballots to repair public confidence in our election process.

The Board of Commissioners continue to place blind trust in a vendor – Election Systems and Software (ES&S) even after a group of bi-partisan members of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence sent a letter asking why the vendor is discouraging independent security reviews of its products. Election scholars have also publicly stated that the security protocols in this newly rolled out system would allow undetectable tampering by outside hacks.

Last month the Johnson County Election Commissioner who was recently reappointed was sued over rejected ballots. As I meet with residents across the county, many voters say they will vote by paper ballot as they don’t trust the county’s management of the process. As County Commissioner, I will work to restore integrity and confidence in our Election Office.

Ron Shaffer (incumbent)

Originally there were six interested parties, five of which met the criteria of the bidding documents, with two of the five finally qualifying for the contract for the new machines. State Statutes have very strict bidding requirements that were strictly adhered to with careful oversight and approval by the County Purchasing Department and the County Legal Department. ES&S was the successful bidder offering the greatest security available, providing a secure voting tabulation and recording process while offering the voter an opportunity to review their submitted ballot with a paper trail. The voting machines performed as expected and there was no reason to suspect a failure in the software leading to the untimely reporting. The actual tabulation, while slow, was accurate. To date, the county has paid ES&S less than $50,000 of the $10.5 million contract.

At the BOCC meeting last week, a senior representative from ES&S assured the BOCC that the faulty software has been corrected and tested through rigorous exercise at both ES&S headquarters in Omaha and the County Election Office. It was also confirmed that the corrected software program has received both federal and state testing and certification. It was also discussed that if further issues develop, the contract can be cancelled.

By State Statue, passed in 1947, counties with over 130,000 population must have their Election Commissioner appointed by the Secretary of State. Johnson County is one of four counties in Kansas meeting that threshold. At the other 101 Counties, the County Clerk is always the Election Officer of record. I would advocate that the Election Commissioner of these four Counties be an appointed position of their respective County Commissions. Doing so would rightfully establish local control of this appointment for one of our most important government responsibilities.

The BOCC did unanimously support the recommendation of the County Departments mentioned, and in spite of the election issues surrounding the Primary election reporting, I feel the BOCC made the right decision based on the information and facts presented.

District 4

Janeé Hanzlick

It was irresponsible and wasteful for my opponent to authorize spending $10.5 million of taxpayer money on a voting system that had never been used before, based on an outdated bid, and just three months before a critical election. As the former CEO of SAFEHOME, a multi-million-dollar nonprofit agency in Johnson County, I was accountable to donors and adhered to strict financial standards. Under my leadership, SAFEHOME consistently earned Charity Navigator’s highest rating for fiscal responsibility and transparency. Johnson County voters expect the Board of County Commissioners to do the same with their hard-earned tax dollars. As County Commissioner, I will use tax dollars wisely and carefully, including researching alternatives to a costly and failed voting system and passing responsible budgets.

Jason Osterhaus (incumbent)

The decision to award the contract was the correct one.

Of all the vendors who applied, ES&S provided a product that was the most compatible with our current system of PollPads, while also providing a paper trail that voters had requested.

The County safeguarded itself in that contract by making sure that NONE of the money in the contract is awarded to ES&S unless the machines and the software preform as stated on November 6.

This last Thursday both the Election Commissioner and ES&S reported to the board about the updates to the tabulation software and the stress testing that they performed. Based on that testing I’m confident that the everything will work as it should on election night.

District 5

Michael Ashcraft (incumbent)

Based on regulatory expectations, ES&S appeared to be the best choice available. The concerns with the delays during the primary are well known. The County Commission met just this past week with the Election Commissioner and ES&S and received assurances that the glitches experienced during the primary have been addressed. Until the citizens of Johnson County can confirm that the system works as billed, ES&S will not be paid. I am confident that the system will be perfected and our elections will run smoothly and efficiently.

LeEtta Felter

The BOCC decision to unanimously approve the ES&S contract is a decision I support. The RFP and vendor selection process was thorough, arduous, and transparent.

ES&S isn’t a boutique, off beat, or inexperienced vendor; they provide election services to around 61% of the election offices throughout our country. ES&S are election experts. Even experts occasionally have software releases that do not perform as intended. It is very common that companies such as Apple and Microsoft routinely release new versions of software due to bugs or unexpected performance issues. This is the nature of technology. The election results processing trouble that JoCo experienced during the August primary election was related to a coding issue in the software. I understand that the coding has been corrected, rigorously tested, executed well, and that the newly released version is going through the certification process to be ready for the general election on November 6. I hope that the processing issue has been corrected.

That said, the performance clause in the contract gives Johnson County an out if the system doesn’t perform in the general election. Although we have a contract for over $10 million with ES&S, we have actually spent less than $50K with them. While I have confidence that ES&S will do everything in their power to make sure that Johnson County doesn’t experience another drawn out reporting delay on November 6, we do have an “out” if ES&S has not resolved this issue. The performance clause is our out…if they don’t perform then we don’t pay.

Tomorrow we’ll have the candidates’ responses to item two:

Late last year, the board of county commissioners voted not to renew the contract of County Manager Hannes Zacharias. Was parting ways with Zacharias the right move for Johnson County? Why or why not?