Texas Counties at Mercy of ES&S
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By Veronica L. Castro, Texas Coalition for Voting Integrity
April 01, 2006
The elections drama that unfolded this week in Jefferson County, TX is an example of what can happen when an extraordinary amount of power is placed in the hands of a few. Democratic and Republican primary elections were being ‘held hostage’ by iVotronic manufacturer ES&S. Jefferson county purchased iVotronic machines in order to comply with federal law by the first primary election of the year. On March 7, the iVotronics were in place, but the system was not. Database components were missing. The programming was flawed. There were equipment failures. County Clerk Carolyn Guidry stated tabulation errors led to votes being counted twice. She added that the ES&S personnel were ill-informed. The Jefferson County Commissioner’s Court reviewed what happened on March 7 and concluded that ES&S was not fulfilling its contractual obligations. They decided to withhold payment until ES&S held up their end of the bargain. This is a standard practice; when homeowners or businesses hire a contractor, they do not pay the entire sum in advance but pay a portion when work begins. The remainder is paid when work is satisfactorily completed. Even though the March 7th election was problematic and far from satisfactory, ES&S demanded payment. The company stated that they would not provide programming and technical support for the run-off election until they were paid $1.95 million.
County officials knew they could not conduct the run-off election on iVotronics unless they had ES&S support. Assistant District Attorney Tom Rugg told the Beaumont Enterprise, “They are refusing to do things only they can do. Without ES&S programming, "the system they say they've sold to us is essentially worthless."
Unable to put the voting machines to use, the County planned to use paper ballots for early voting, which begins Monday. “We’re cutting and pasting from sample ballots,” stated Chief Deputy County Clerk Theresa Goodness. County officials expressed concern about accessibility, but said if they did not reach an agreement with ES&S they would have to use paper ballots. The Secretary of State’s office reminded Jefferson county officials that they risked losing federal money and sanctions from the Justice Department if they did not meet handicapped-accessibility requirements.
Although the county has reached an agreement with ES&S late Wednesday afternoon, it appears they had no choice. The county was between a rock and a hard place. The rock: they could pay ES&S for sloppy and incomplete work. The hard place: use paper ballots and face possible sanctions for violating federal law. County commissioners chose the former. They will pay ES&S, but the iVotronics will not be ready for early voting, and the county will have to use optical-scan ballots. The touch-screens will be added whenever programming and testing has been completed. Hopefully that will be before the end of early voting.
Jefferson County is not alone. Several Texas counties who use the iVotronic are at the mercy of ES&S. Angelina, Brewster, Briscoe, Caldwell, Jefferson, Navarro, and Webb counties are among those. None have received ballot programs, some have not received training or software, and all are hoping that someone from ES&S shows up on Friday. Otherwise, they will not be ready for Monday. As one County Clerk put it, “We are going to use whatever we have.” Election officials must rely on the expertise of software programmers provided by the company and cannot program their own ballots. Without ES&S ballot programs, the iVotronic is as useless as a door-less refrigerator.
State Director of Elections Ann McGeehan has received numerous complaints. Although the Elections Office could not specify how many and which counties are affected by poor service, they know the problems are widespread. Ms. McGeehan’s office issued a memorandum today giving counties permission to,
create emergency ballots. If you do not receive your ballots in time to properly prepare for early voting, you may create your own paper ballots or, if you received a proof from your vendor, you may use PDF format to print copies of the ballot. … If you do not receive your ballot programming in time to conduct your required Logic and Accuracy tests, you will have no option [emphasis added] but to begin early voting using the emergency paper ballots.
Assistant D.A. Rugg knows about not having options. “Right now, they're [ES&S] my only shot at being ... compliant, and I really need to be that way so the federal government doesn't start asking embarrassing questions."
Ms. McGeehan acknowledged, “We recognize that this kind of service from our certified voting systems vendors is completely unacceptable and disturbing.” Indeed, it is disturbing when elections cannot go forward without the help of a small number of people from a handful of companies.
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