Vendor must fix electronic poll books, election officials say

A poll worker at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church examines a voter's driver's license. (February 28, 2012)
A poll worker at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church examines a voter's driver's license. (February 28, 2012) The Wichita Eagle

More than $370,000 worth of electronic equipment won’t be used in local city and school elections early next year if the vendor doesn’t correct problems with the software, Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said.

There have been ongoing problems with the county’s 130 electronic poll books that were first used earlier this year, she said.

“The vendor will have to fix that before we use them again,” she said. “The books have made it far more cumbersome for us. For the election administrators, they’re just a nightmare.”

Other counties have also expressed frustration with the electronic poll books, according to a survey conducted after the August primary by the Kansas secretary of state’s office.

The poll book problems aren’t directly related to the long delay Lehman’s office experienced in last week’s general election. Final results weren’t put on the county’s website until almost 2 a.m. Wednesday because of a series of user errors involving the equipment, including voting machines at two polling sites, and in loading the results at the election office.

Some of those problems appeared to mirror difficulties that led to delayed results during the primary.

As part of an investigation into those delays by Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office, state election director Brad Bryant and the vendor will meet with Lehman at her office this week.

The issues with the electronic poll books won’t be part of that discussion, Lehman said.

“But we will talk with the vendor about it later,” she added.

While the books aren’t directly connected to the delay woes, Lehman said the staff spends a lot of time keeping them updated – time that could better be spent on staff training. She has said more training will help avoid some of the problems experienced on Election Day.

Sedgwick County purchased the electronic poll books through the secretary of state’s office in 2010, about a year before Kobach appointed Lehman as election commissioner. The books and accessories, such as the scanners and signature pads, cost $371,150. The county had to pay 10 percent, or $37,115, with the rest paid by the state from funds received in a federal grant.

ES&S is the county’s vendor for the poll books, the same vendor that has provided the rest of its election equipment.

The county began using the pads this year and almost immediately had problems.

With the exception of one polling site, the electronic signature pads weren’t used in the general election. The interaction between the pads and the poll books – the heart of the system – caused the books to crash during advance voting for the general election.

“So instead of slowing down the election process, we pulled the electronic pads,” Lehman said.

The transfer of updated information – address and name changes, newly registered voters – from the office’s database to the electronic books has been intermittent, she said.

Lehman said she received an e-mail the night before the election from the vendor that confirmed not all address changes were pulling over from the office’s data system to the poll books. But she said books had already been sent to sites to get ready for the polls opening at 6 a.m. the next day.

There were some problems at the sites with incorrect address information in the books, but Lehman said most of those issues were resolved by poll workers calling her office to confirm voter information.

Even if moving the data to the poll books weren’t a problem, she said they are still too cumbersome and time consuming to maintain.

“It’s just the way they have the system set up,” Lehman said. “They were purchased to streamline the process, but they haven’t functioned the way the vendor said they would. That has been a big disappointment.”

Other county election officials also aren’t happy with their electronic poll books. Fifty-eight of Kansas’ 105 counties have purchased the books from three different vendors – ES&S has the second most counties with 19 – since 2009.

Judging by the responses to the survey from secretary of state’s office after the primary, the issue isn’t tied to any particular vendor but with the books in general.

Butler County responded with a common concern that the books added to the work load. Bourbon County wrote, “Would be faster to use paper, but plan to stick with it.” Rush County wrote, “The process of setting them up, programming the machines, training the workers and fixing the problems was time consuming and frustrating at times.”

Sedgwick County didn’t participate in the survey.

“They sent the survey right in the middle of a hectic, hectic time,” Lehman said, “so I didn’t have a chance to return it.”

But she said she’s let Kobach’s office know about the problems and has forwarded e-mails she has received from ES&S that dealt with issues.

Sedgwick and Wyandotte are the state’s only metropolitan counties using electronic poll books. Shawnee and Johnson counties don’t have them.

“We’ve heard enough stories about problems and issues with them” said Andrew Howell, who took over as Shawnee County’s election commissioner about two months ago. “They’re difficult problems.”

Johnson County is considering working with the secretary of state’s office to develop its own electronic poll books, Election Commissioner Brian Newby said.

“It would be great if we had them,” Newby said. “The registration table is always the choke point and they could speed things up. Paper poll books are a pain. You have to pay for staff time to set them up, printing costs, paper costs.”

Johnson County would need 750 to 1,000 electronic poll books to properly accommodate its polling sites, which average about 250, he said. Johnson County has 383,000 registered voters. That’s about 110,000 more than Sedgwick County, which has 62 polling sites.