County Wants Better Deal from Voting Machine Co.

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County Commissioners could hear an update Monday on what’s been called a “hostage” situation with the state’s voting machine company.

County Attorney Scott Warren is in negotiations with ES&S, a company that makes voting machines used statewide in North Carolina. The company is the only provider of voting machines in the state.

Voting Machines

Although Wake County voters use paper ballots, the county has 248 voting machines:

-M100 optical scan machines (the ones into which you put your ballot)
-Automark machines for those with disabilities
-Three high-speed ballot counting machines

Wake County Board of Elections Director Cherie Poucher wants to certify two of her own technicians to inspect, fix and maintain the county’s 248 voting machines each year.

ES&S offered to certify two technicians in a training program in Omaha, Kan. The cost is $15,000 each, an extra $5,000 annually for recertification and 60 percent of the county’s $174,000 annual contract.

“That 60 percent of a contract when we did the work was unreasonable,” Poucher said. “But we knew we still had to work with ES&S because you have to have ES&S parts. There were certain things that we knew we still needed.”

“And evidently our commissioners really didn’t like that,” she said. “They felt they were being held hostage and that ES&S was a monopoly.”

All North Carolina counties purchased new voting equipment that year to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). ES&S has maintained the machines since they were purchased in 2006.

At that time, ES&S offered one year of free maintenance. After that, the state paid the annual cost using HAVA funds.  That money is now frozen.

Voting machines are stacked and stored in the Elections warehouse when not in use.

Poucher said her technicians already do most of the work, testing and certifying machines before each election.

“If we have four elections in a year, we do diagnostics, cleaning, complete testing. Our logic and accuracy testing is … I think we do more than is required by the state board,” she said. “And then that machine is certified by my technician.”

ES&S visits once a year, working for only 80 hours. Poucher said ES&S’ annual visit basically amounts to a cleaning at a cost of nearly $174,000 per year.

Poucher, Warren, and members of ES&S and its co-company Print Elect met last week to discuss the terms. Poucher said they are looking for certification for her technicians and continued maintenance at a lower percentage. She did not say how much they suggested.

Warrens said Friday he heard from ES&S officials, who reported they were “very close to sending us two proposals, both of which I believe will save the county money.”

Some counties need to use ES&S technicians for helping with programming and coding the machines, Poucher said, especially those with only one or two staff members. But Wake County needs a different solution, she said.

“We’re looking for what is best for the taxpayers of Wake County and the voters of Wake County,” she said.

The County Commission meets at 2 p.m. Monday.

6 thoughts on “County Wants Better Deal from Voting Machine Co.

  1. If Cherie Poucher really wanted to do what is best for the taxpayers of Wake County, she might actually ask them how they feel about what she’s been trying to push for the last several years. And she might also actually respond with information that has been requested to prove that Wake County can actually do the work cheaper than the vendor can do. An apples-to-apples side-by-side comparison of costs shows that Wake can’t do it cheaper than the vendor. The cost of the vendor maintenance agreement is $140K – not $174K. The extra $34K is for software and firmware updates that are only obtainable from the vendor.

    In year one – it could cost the county as much as $200K for the salary/benefits, certify two technicians, buy certified parts and equipment – $60K over and above the $140K cost for the maintenance agreement and warranty. In subsequent years, it will cost another $15 over and above. Meaning that Wake County will never break even. And on top of that cost is the cost of Wake County having to put up the same performance bond that the vendor has – to pay for any election mistakes made as a result of equipment problems. I as a taxpayer don’t want to spend an extra $50K the first year and $15K in subsequent years – and I don’t want to put up an extra $7 million for a performance bond!

    I find it odd to head Paul Coble and Joe Bryan rant and rave about the evil monopoly that ES&S has and claim that the government can do a better and cheaper job than a private business can do. Next thing you know – they’ll be out there supporting Single-Payer health care and the re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada!

  2. What a sweet deal ES&S has with the State Board of Elections being designated as the SOLE Supplier of the M100 Voting Machines and a costly maintenance fee for each machine in each of NC Counties. Typical of the State to only designate a single source supplier. It’s never heard of in the Private Sector Software or Hardware maintenance and equipment industries. ES&S still has not released the latest version of the Voting Machines the M200 because it continues to fail to perform as it should. Okay, State of North Carolina, have you investigated other Voting Machine Suppliers??? Like Advanced Voting Solutions, Danaher Guardian Voting Systems, Diebold Election Systems, Hart InterCivic, Perfect Voting System, Sequoia Voting Systems, and UniLect Cor. to name a few.

  3. Jan: Not sure where you got your facts from, but you are wrong. The SBOE didn’t designate ES&S as the sole supplier. That is flat-out wrong!

    Prior to 2000, we had no uniform standards for voting systems and election administration. 100 counties used 18 different types of voting machines – some nearly 40 years old! 4 suppliers were no longer in business, maintenance was limited, vendor support was sparse, and security was a joke! Poll worker and elections staff training was disjointed and incomplete. All counties did their own thing with ballot printing. Few counties complied with federal laws and standards. Basically – we got into the trouble we had in 2004 because we had TOO MUCH competition – not less!

    Back in 2005 when the new law was passed, the SBOE sent out RFPs to all the voting companies. Only five companies submitted bids – because the others didn’t have voting machines that would comply with our new high standards.

    Two dropped out early. ES&S, Sequoia and Deibold were left. Sequoia couldn’t get Federal certification in time, so they were out of the running. Diebold (now Premiere) complained how the law was unfair to them, but even after the SBOE lowered the bar for Diebold, Diebold pulled out because their CEO didn’t want to risk jail time for possibly breaking our new law.

    When Diebold bailed out, they also claimed to want to change the law allowing for more competition. They wanted to lower the bar so companies with bad business models and/or those unable to get even less intense Federal certification sell machines to NC. Bad idea – but a popular one. The NC Assocation of County Commissioners wanted a Special Session to change the law, but that failed.

    Through process of self-elimination and not through legislated monopoly, only one company was left – ES&S, which had rolled out voting machines statewide before. We benefited by having one unified election system statewide, greatly simplifying election administration from the State Board of Elections on down through precinct-based poll workers. In one election cycle we were transformed from a Florida-style laughing stock in 2004 to being ranked #1 in our ability to count votes and audit elections in 2006 as well as being ranked as one of the top 8 states ready for the 2008 General Election.

    And ES&S has released the model 200 scanner in other jurisdictions, but it’s not yet passed the tough federal certification that is required in NC. We can’t use ANY equipment that won’t pass our tough laws – or do you feel we should lower our guard and high standards just to save money with shoddy equipment? Remember – this is voting we are talking about. We shouldn’t be treating our voting equipment like throw-away gear! If it’s maintained properly, it should last for 15-20 years. But if the Wake BOE lets uncertified techs work on the gear and doesn’t pay for a performance bond, we’ll be left holding the bag in the event of a problem.

    I for one would rather pay the cost of the maintenance and warranty fee to guarantee the equipment works perfectly – as it has since 2006. And besides – I still haven’t seen any numbers to show exactly how much money Wake BOE claims they’ll save over getting the vendor to do the work!

  4. I dont believe any of the electronic voting machines are secure.
    It has been proven repeatedly that all these machines can be easily hacked.
    Why don’t we use paper ballots that can be recounted if there is a problem?

    Otherwise, no one knows who really won anything.

  5. James: When the Legislature met after the 2004 elections to figure out what went wrong in 2004 and fix it so it wouldn’t happen again, I believe they really did want to use only paper ballots. But there was enormous push back from election officials at the county and state level who loved those touchscreen voting machines. So they had to compromise – giving the DRE machines a voter-verified paper trail that could be used to perform hand-to-eye counts, recounts and audits.

    In fact the Public Confidence in Elections Act states that there shall be random audits consisting of hand-to-eye recounts, and where there is a discrepancy between the hand to eye and the machine counts – the hand-to-eye count wins.

    The law factors in that the machines are not perfect, but the tough standards for audits provide a good safety factor. Our law also requires the use of only EAC certified parts and software upgrades. The combination of criminal penalties and the current maintenance agreements provides a much better safety to prevent hacking.

    One of the reasons why the SBOE turned down Wake County’s many requests to do their own maintenance over the years was security of the machines. The SBOE is charged by law to maintain our tough standards, and I think you can read between the lines of the reasons why they rejected Wake’s request was the security concerns. Yet nothing new has been advanced by Wake to address those safety concerns.

    But the SBOE hasn’t weighed in here since last year’s sneaky change in the law. I believe that the hostile GOP majority in the General Assembly has muzzled the SBOE. Why speak up or out if you know you will get punished by FURTHER budget cuts? And although I have repeatedly asked the Wake BOE and BOC to contact the SBOE – they refuse to do so. Why should they when they already know that the SBOE will continue to raise the same concerns – and the Wake BOE has no satisfactory answers?

  6. Oh – hand counting can still be manipulated by introducing factors into the hand-counting procedures that make it hard if not impossible to follow or even observe.

    Case in point – comparing the two IRV handcounts – the one in 2007 and the one in 2010.

    2007 was a simple sort/stack and tally count. They had to go through about 8K ballots to find a little more than 3K votes for the Cary IRV candidates. They did it in three teams of 4, where the public was able to watch closely and see how the ballots were marked up close. We were also able to follow the tallying procedure. We observers caught a few errors made because the procedure was overly complex – so much so that one former BOE member switched places with a volunteer. Then we spotted an error in the math – which was later explained as a calculator error. Then all the ballots were taken into a closed office for a secret count with no advance notice or chance for the public or the candidates to observe. They found missing votes.

    Move forward to the 2010 IRV count. They set up 9 sets of tables that were 24 feet long, placing the crucial 1st counter so far from where the public had to stand the whole time – no seats. No one could see how accurately the first counters were doing their jobs unless they brought in binoculars. The process was designed to make the election administrator’s jobs easier – not to be more transparent or observable. So not all hand-counting is perfect. You can use machines to count votes as long as you have good random auditing procedures and you don’t skimp in all other areas.

    Alas, it seems like the Wake BOE and BOC are hell-bent on skimping on maintenance. I think they really don’t like having the state maintain tough standards and provide oversight.