By JOHN GIDEON
West Virgina's Secretary of State Betty Ireland recently issued a press release:
"Voting machine vendors across the nation are faced with the daunting task of servicing all 50 states at one time," the release said.
"Sometimes this can happen when sweeping federal legislation affects all 50 states," Ireland said in the release. "We understand that ES&S is working hard to meet the demands of all its customers. But we still intend to get what we paid for."
Why is the Secretary of State making excuses for Elections Systems and Software (ES&S), the state's voting machine vendor? Yes, ES&S has failed to meet their contract in West Virginia and, yes, ES&S has a daunting task. However, any failures in meeting their contract with the state are of ES&S's own making. They have certainly been paid well enough by tax-payer money to do the job they agreed to do. Would any non-government contractor be given such latitude in meeting obligations of a signed, well-funded contract?
It is clear when you look at the nation as a whole that ES&S has oversold their ability to perform. In Oregon, they are now being sued for breach of contract by the state. In Indiana, they are the subject of investigative hearings by the Secretary of State for failure to meet their contracts -- those failures, the Secretary of State has said, could turn into a lawsuit or fines of $300,000 per incident. In North Carolina, ES&S has had to recall 1000 memory cards – which store the tabulations of votes and other information -- because they failed to work. In Summit County, Ohio, the elections director has already announced that the May 2 state primary in his county will probably see a failure in the ES&S voting machines.
Can you imagine a county elections director actually predicting a failure? In order for Summit County's optical-scan voting machines to work they need memory cards, and the memory cards provided by ES&S have been failing at an alarming rate. In fact, election workers are complaining about the memory cards literally falling apart in their hands.
In Jefferson County Texas ES&S's iVotronics machines failed miserably in the state's March 7 primary. Ballot programming software was faulty and some components were missing. The county threatened to withhold the balance of payment on the machines until such time as ES&S could hold-up their part of the contract. However, ES&S threatened the county that they would not provide any further services, such as ballot programming and ballot printing; until the county paid the bill. The county was facing a quickly approaching run-off election with no contractor support and they finally realized that ES&S had them over a barrel. The county caved.
The memory card problems in North Carolina are a result of the same poor production and lack of quality control by the same contractor that produced the cards that are failing in Summit County, Ohio.
In Indiana counties have been waiting for weeks to get the software necessary from ES&S for their iVotronic voting machines, like the ones in West Virginia, to work. State-wide early voting in Indiana started on 17 April and the affected counties have been forced – after all of this -- to use paper ballots at the polls. This failure has led the Secretary of State and the State Elections Commission to hold investigative hearings to find out from ES&S why they cannot seem to meet any obligatory contractual dates. All ES&S could do was to apologize for their poor performance.
And paper ballot printing has been a problem too. Even though ES&S requires ballots be printed by their own printers and on their own "special" paper (at a cost over twice per ballot than if they were printed by a county contractor on normal card stock), they still cannot seem to get the ballots delivered on time and without errors. North Carolina, Indiana, Texas, and California counties have all experienced problems with ballots that had to be sent back three or four times for re-printing.
A recent editorial in the Evansville (IN) Courier-Press said, "Eventually, it [ES&S's problems] will be corrected, both by punitive action by governments intent on protecting the integrity of the voting process, and by competition. Nothing will force these companies to do a top-notch job as much as new competitors willing to do a better job for less."
Are Secretary Ireland and some county officials making excuses for ES&S because they now realize they made a huge mistake when they selected ES&S as the vendor for the state? It certainly seems that they are not bothering to look beyond the state's borders to see what is happening with this company in the rest of the country. If they simply shrug this all off as a "daunting task" are they really serving the voters? Or are they crossing their fingers, wishing for the best and hoping to protect themselves?
ES&S must take responsibility for fulfilling the contracts they chose to sign in servicing those states to which they pitched their wares. Clearly, they saw a huge opportunity for making millions of dollars via the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) billions of dollars in federal funding for states to upgrade their voting equipment. What Secretary Ireland is ignoring is that ES&S was presented with an apple from which they have taken a bite that was too big and they are now choking on that bite and it is ultimately the voters – who Ireland is obligated to serve -- that will end up being hurt in the bargain. Already, WV counties are talking about ignoring the HAVA mandate to provide accessible voting for voters with disabilities. How many more voters will have to suffer before Secretary Ireland and others admit they made a mistake.
As usual, it's the voters -- not the government officials nor the private corporations receiving those voters' tax-dollars – who end up paying the ultimate price for democracy lost.
Gideon is executive director of www.votersunite.org and information manager of www.votetrustusa.org.