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Overcoming the election absurdity

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Because of election problems in the first-primary elections Tuesday, May 23, Secretary of State Charlie Daniels says he’ll hire a consultant to study the state’s $15 million contract with the company that supplied most of the state’s new election systems “to see what we should do so this won’t happen again,” and he’ll appoint a blue-ribbon committee to consider the consultant’s report and make recommendations to Daniels, the state’s top election official. The possibilities include some sort of financial penalties against the company, Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb., Daniels said Friday.

While most of the state seemed to have no major problems in voting and tabulating votes with the new systems required by federal law, a few counties did, and one of them was Pulaski, the state’s largest. A harried Susan Inman, Pulaski County director of elections, said it was “absurd that we are in this situation because of this poor programming product that this company has provided … ”

“Pulaski County is upset and Charlie Daniels is upset,” Daniels said in an interview. Besides wanting to serve the public well, Daniels is surely concerned about the political ramifications of the election problems. He’s up for re-election, he has a Republican opponent in the November general election, and Pulaski County has a lot of voters. He had little to say about the political aspect, though, except that he expected his opponent, Jim Lagrone of Bryant, “to take advantage of every situation.”

And yet another situation may be developing. Election-reform activists are disrespectful of the consultant Daniels plans to hire to study the state contract with ES&S. The consultant is Glenn Newkirk, president of InfoSentry, a company based in Raleigh, N.C. Lisa Burks of Conway, an activist, said in an e-mail that “Newkirk is NOT a computer scientist. He has a political science background.” She passed along an article by David L. Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, that was sharply critical of Newkirk, who has done consulting work around the country.

Despite the complaints of people like Dill, Newkirk is “respected in the community,” Daniels said. Newkirk has worked for Daniels before. He evaluated the two bids the state received last year to provide new election systems, to see that they matched the state’s specifications in its invitation for bids.

Dill is a “conspiracy theorist,” Daniels said, and he and others like him are “totally opposed to all touch-screen machines.” Newkirk has defended touch-screen machines. Opponents of the machines say they’re too easily rigged and don’t have the transparency needed to uncover the rigging. But, Daniels said, the federal law requires that touch-screen machines be made available in every county, and he must comply. Forty-seven Arkansas counties chose to use touch-screen machines exclusively, he said.

There have been some complaints about Daniels’ awarding the state contract to ES&S, since a committee he appointed to evaluate bids gave a higher score to Diebold Election Systems of Allen, Texas. The committee stopped short of recommending the contract be awarded to Diebold, however.

Daniels points out that there were only two bidders, and ES&S’s bid was roughly $2 million lower than Diebold’s. Also, Daniels said, ES&S had worked with many Arkansas counties previously, and had a good track record in Arkansas.

Both Diebold and ES&S — especially Diebold — have been accused of being too close to the Republican Party. Daniels, a Democrat, said that wasn’t a factor in his decision. Both companies have had election problems in other states, too.

Three counties in south Arkansas — Columbia, Ouachita and Union — were exempted from the state contract with ES&S because the voting systems they had in place, purchased from Harp Enterprises of Lexington, Ky., met the requirements of the new federal law. They reported no significant problems in the first primary. Ouachita County Clerk Britt Williford said, “We were through counting the votes from all 22 precincts by about 8:45 p.m.” The polls didn’t close until 7:30 p.m.

The company that manufactures the voting machines sold by Harp didn’t bid on the statewide contract, however.

ES&S issued a statement the day after the primary, when the problems in Pulaski County had become apparent. It said, in part: “We regret the current delay [in counting votes], and are committed to working diligently with Pulaski County to ensure a situation like this never happens again. … Building on that commitment, we will be restructuring our project management team … ”

That commitment will be put to the test pretty quickly. The runoff is June 13. Whether the problems can be worked out by then is problematical. But most primary contests were decided in the first primary, so the vote in June should be very light. That might help.

Looking further down the road, even Inman, who’s said harsh things about ES&S, expects that all be well by general election time in November. “I think this will be resolved when more time has passed and we can do our own programming and verification in a timely manner,” she said. ES&S did all the programming for the first primary, because the state was making a transition to new touch-screen equipment.


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