Despite reservations, Allegheny County board picks Election Systems & Software for large-scale voting equipment contract

A panel of county officials voted to choose ES&S because they felt it was the only vendor that could meet Allegheny County's capacity needs.

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A resident walks near a polling place in East Liberty on May 21, 2019. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The interim Board of Elections voted unanimously Wednesday for Allegheny County to negotiate the purchase of new voting equipment and software with Election Systems & Software in spite of concerns raised by experts and advocates over the company's ethics and conduct.

With the estimated $10.6 million purchase, Allegheny County voters will receive a voting system that relies primarily on hand-marked paper ballots. Many election security experts consider hand-marked paper ballots to be the most secure and reliable system of voting because voters’ choices are inherently voter-verified and the process creates a paper trail that can allow for recounts by hand if there is a malfunction with machines. 

Election Systems & Software [ES&S], the largest voting equipment vendor in the United States, is the county’s current provider of voting equipment. But working under a state directive, the county will stop using its current equipment because it has been deemed less secure by the state than the equipment it will purchase on a new contract from ES&S. That contract will likely  be signed in the coming weeks, the three-member board said. 

ES&S is considered controversial because it has a track record of providing officials in other jurisdictions with campaign contributions, gifts or other things of value like trips to Las Vegas to serve on an advisory board. Members of the Allegheny County Board of Elections and interim Board of Elections, however, have said publicly they haven’t received any money from the company. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, too, has said he has not received anything of value from the company nor been lobbied by them or a third party. In February, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale reported that officials in 18 counties had received money or gifts from ES&S and a second voting equipment company, Dominion Voting. 

In August, news that ES&S had given campaign contributions to Philadelphia commissioners tasked with choosing a vendor for new voting equipment troubled many in the city. A recently completed investigation found ES&S had lobbied officials in Philadelphia for years. 

But for Allegheny County, interim Board of Election members decided ES&S was the only company out of four that submitted bids that could handle the size of the county’s elections and the complexity its 130 municipalities and 43 school districts create. Because of that fragmentation, Allegheny County’s elections are among the most complex in the nation.  

“It's not great, but it's as good as we can be right now,” said Judge Kathryn Hens-Greco after Wednesday’s vote. Hens-Greco was the interim Board of Elections member who motioned to select ES&S over Hart InterCivic and Dominion Voting. At the last board meeting on Aug. 30, the board appeared to be deciding between ES&S and Hart Intercivic, the latter of which some advocates preferred. But Hart InterCivic was not certified to handle the complexity of the county’s elections. On Sept. 10 and 11, all three vendors conducted “stress tests” to show if the equipment could handle the capacity of a typical election. After those tests, county and state officials discussed the possibility of Hart and Dominion receiving a limited certification — rather than a full federal or state certification, which involves multiple tests — showing they could handle Allegheny County’s capacity.

But, according to Hens-Greco, Hart didn’t want to seek that limited certification until after the board voted to choose them. Hens-Greco said she wasn’t comfortable with that.  

Hens-Greco’s motion requires the county to purchase enough optical scanners from ES&S so that every voter can mark a paper ballot by hand and then scan it in their precinct to record their votes. The motion also called for one of ES&S’ ExpressVote machines, which are ballot-marking devices, in each precinct for voters who are unable to mark paper by hand. The ExpressVote ballot-marking devices allow voters to make their choices on a touchscreen, receive a printed receipt with their choices and a barcode and scan the barcode to cast their ballots. Hens-Greco criticized the ExpressVote’s use of barcodes. 

Security experts say ballot-marking devices are OK to use for voters who can’t hand-mark paper but that, because people cannot read barcodes themselves, that feature leads to less secure voting. 

Hens-Greco’s motion also called for the county to purchase enough machines to handle military and provisional ballots; for the county to implement a system of post-election audits in place for the 2020 primaries and beyond; and for those audits to follow guidelines set out by the Brennan Center for Justice. Three companies Hart InterCivic, Dominion Voting and ClearBallot all responded on Wednesday to a separate request for proposals — issued Aug. 29 — to provide that service to the county. 

After the vote, Hens-Greco explained that it was difficult for her to arrive at the decision to choose ES&S, but that it was necessary. One of the reasons she did so, she said, was because she felt confident that ES&S’ system coupled with post-election audits would give voters a secure and accurate system they could be confident in. 

“I had article after article sent to me about ES&S,” she said. “And so I knew there were concerns about ES&S.”

She continued: “I only felt I could in good conscience say we're going to select ES&S if I simultaneously knew we were going to do post election auditing. They had to come together and if they weren't going to come together then that was really going to be a big problem for me.” 

Wednesday’s vote ends a six-month search process that included eight public demonstrations of voting systems by vendors and three “stress tests” to assess if vendors other than ES&S could meet the county’s needs. The county’s purchasing and law divisions will work out details on the duration of the contract. According to a search committee report released over the summer, the ES&S hand-marked system and ballot-marking devices are  estimated to cost around $10.6 million with $240,000 in annual maintenance costs.

County Councilman Tom Baker, R-Moon Township, another member of the board, said he shared Hens-Greco’s concerns about ES&S but felt it was important to make a choice soon so the county could prepare for the 2020 primaries. 

The Allegheny County interim Board of Elections voted on Sept. 25 to buy hand-marked paper ballots and ballot marking devices from Election Systems & Software. (Photo by J. Dale Shoemaker/PublicSource)

“Time is not on our side,” he said, adding that the cost also concerned him. “As a fiscal conservative, the number for all three of the finalists certainly concerns me, but I guess I felt they were all close enough that we had to make the decision that's most likely to make sure [we have] a well-functioning election for 2020 and beyond.” 

Some of the cost will be offset by $1.55 million the federal government provided to Allegheny County to purchase new voting equipment. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf also pledged to issue a $90 million bond to help pay for voting equipment in the state. Allegheny County last purchased voting equipment in 2006.

Some members of the public at Wednesday’s meeting expressed disappointment. At least one person urged the county to choose Hart InterCivic as its vendor because its ballot-marking devices don’t use barcodes, while others urged the board, no matter who they chose, to invest in efforts to better train poll workers and increase voter turnout. 

Ron Bandes, a retired network security analyst and president of the fair elections group Vote Allegheny, said he wished the board would have better incorporated into their decision what they witnessed through the “stress tests” it made three of the vendors conduct.

“I'm disappointed, at the very least, that the board asked for these stress tests and then did not utilize the results,” he said after the vote. 

David Tessitor, a Squirrel Hill resident who regularly advocates for increased government transparency, said he felt the county wanted to choose ES&S from the start. 

“It was a preordained decision from the beginning,” he said. “This was a totally open-and-closed process.”

Juliet Zavon, a retired Squirrel Hill resident and election security advocate, said she was disappointed with the decision. Zavon said she would now turn her efforts to training poll workers ahead of the 2020 primaries and other matters related to election administration. 

“Will my vote be properly counted? I don't know,” she said. “I wish it wasn't the way that it is, but it is and, you know, now we have to move on. There's plenty to do in election administration in this county.”

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker.

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