Editor’s Note: In the original posting of this article, Chris Telesca was identified as a member of the NC Coalition for Verified Voting. While that is true, his statements in this story reflect his role as the founder of the Wake County Coalition for Verified Voting.
Putting voting machine maintenance in the hands of local technicians is not a good idea, according to a member of a nonprofit voter integriy group.
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.
The state’s voting machine company is ES&S, which provides parts and technician services as part of its $174,000 annual contract. ES&S has maintained the machines since they were purchased in 2006.
Up until recently, the state has paid for voting machine maintenance using funds from the federal Help America Vote Act. Right now, those funds are frozen in North Carolina because the state isn’t meeting the necessary spending threshold. The state must allocate an additional $664,000 to the State Board of Elections to qualify for the $4 million in HAVA funds.
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
At Poucher’s request for certification, ES&S offered to train her technicians through a 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.
Poucher said that offer is not reasonable; Wake County attorney Scott Warren has been negotiating with ES&S for weeks.
But Chris Telesca, founder of the Wake County Coalition for Verified Voting, questions whether a county should certify its own voting machines regardless.
“If the machines in Wake County have problems, who pays for it? Who pays for a statewide redo in the event of a problem in Wake County? I don’t want to be on the hook for that,” he said. “Who’s going to provide oversight at the county level if the county does their own maintenance? That’s what I’m worried about.”
Telesca argues the State Board of Elections should still have oversight of the machines, but feels his arguments for this have been met with little concern.
North Carolina State Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett told the Record said the state board has no issue with Wake County certifying its own machines.
“As long as they work it out with ES&S whereas the warranty is still intact, we have no issues,” he said. “As long as they are compliant with the law it’s fine.”
However, in a letter last year to State Sen. Richard Stevens, Bartlett expressed several of the same concerns raised by Telesca, such as oversight, cost and a county’s ability to handle the work.
“The State Board staff must ensure that every county board is in compliance with the General Statutes, including the maintenance statute, and not causing harm to the electoral process,” he wrote.
Bartlett expressed similar concerns a year earlier in another letter about the issue.
“To open up the maintenance to uncertified personnel places the state of North Carolina at high risk for future voting equipment failures, potential security breaches and removes the safeguard of the vendor performance bond,” he wrote.
But Bartlett also said in his letters that if ES&S produced a certification program approved by the State Board of Elections, counties could participate and certify their own machines.
Poucher said she can save the county money by having her own technicians do the work. Telesca has asked for a side-by-side cost comparison for the county certifying its machines versus having ES&S manage it. From parts to software to other testing, he does not believe the move will save money.
Poucher also said her technicians already conduct the lion’s share of the machine testing and maintenance each year. Telesca argues that the voting machine vendor technicians go through a lengthy checklist, provide parts and offer an added layer of insurance.
“What we’re paying for is not just going in and cleaning out the equipment,” he said. “It’s a one-year, 100 percent coverage warranty. It’s a promise to come in with two days, 48 hours, and fix anything that might be wrong with that equipment.”
ES&S could not be reached for comment about voting machine testing, or the certification program they have offered to Wake County.
Bartlett said last week that Poucher is the only Elections Director in the state making the request to certify her own machines.
“The county would be responsible for anything that goes wrong,” he said. “The only way that we will get involved is if Wake County is not compliant with the law. But as long as Wake County and ES&S work something out … that’s fine.”
This might all be moot if a deal can’t be worked out with ES&S for local certification. Warren said this week he is still negotiating with the company.
“Nothing has been finalized yet,” he said. “If we can’t come to terms, we will discuss it.”
He said he plans to give County Commissioners an update during their March 19 meeting, but said he may not have much of a report if negotiations are still taking place.
Warren said he does not have any concerns about the county’s liability if Wake begins certifying its own technicians.
“They’ll be certified by ES&S, so no, I don’t have any liability concerns about it,” he said.
Damon Circosta, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, said although he is aware of Poucher’s certification request, he is not following the issue. His organization is focused more on the HAVA funding problem.
“Counties like Wake shouldn’t be forced into this awkward decision where they’ve got to pinch pennies,” he said.
While Telesca questions Poucher’s motives on this issue, one might also question the motives of Telesca, a member of the Wake County Democratic Party.
He said his concern about local certification has nothing to do with politics.
“Voting machine repair should not be a partisan issue,” he said. “Where are the answers to these questions? I’m the only idiot asking them.”
According to Telesca, in terms of voting integrity, North Carolina went from a Florida-level joke to one of the most highly regarded states in the country.
“Why mess with that?” he said. “Every significant change to election law in North Carolina has gone through a piece of legislation that gets introduced on the floor, goes to the committee … and it gets debated in those committees … goes through the whole procedure. This didn’t.”