The latest controversy over the city’s ongoing voting machines saga presents multiple choices of questions and concerns.
Last week, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, while investigating the contract for new voting machines, found that the company, Election Systems & Software, failed to disclose that it had hired lobbyists and made campaign contributions to the reelection campaigns of two city commissioners who were in charge of selecting the vendor.
These mistakes, which ES&S says were inadvertent, made the contract “voidable.” But so far the contract is moving ahead — 3,700 voting machines have already been delivered. ES&S has agreed to pay a $2.9 million fine for its failure to disclose. The Controller’s Office is withholding payment on the contract until it completes its investigation sometime next month.
The choices for questions are multiple: Are the resulting disclosures (and fines) proof that the system is working, or
A. An indictment of the city’s new best value procurement policy, initiated in 2017 when voters approved a change that allowed the city to award contracts on factors other than the lowest price? While overwhelmingly approved by voters, others (including this board) had concerns that the new policy opened the door to granting contracts to insiders and encouraging a pay-to-play culture, as well as more expensive contracts. The $30 million machine contract is the first major test of the new policy.
B. Is the controversy especially troubling in a year when outside tampering in our elections and the need to insure voting rights are front and center? The integrity of our elections was one motivation for voting advocates to protest the voting machine process — the contract ultimately went to a system that will rely not on hand-marked paper ballots, but on a touch screen choice that gets backed up with paper, which, advocates say, is more vulnerable to hacking. Advocates also protested what they said was a lack of transparency and a level of secrecy on the machine vendor decisions.
C. Is it another problem stemming from the fact that the city commissioners should not be an elected office?
While “A” and “B” raise valid questions, we’re going to pick “C” as the larger problem. The city commissioners, an elected office in charge of elections, are also in charge of overseeing the purchasing of voting machines. The fact that any voting machine company bidding on a contract was able to make campaign contributions to the reelection campaigns of two of the commissioners, Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt, is outrageous. Those two have recused themselves from the board of elections, which has the authority to execute the contract. In their place are two judges who ruled last week that the contract should stand as is and move forward. They and other officials believe too much time and money have already been spent to halt the process.
The people overseeing elections run for office. We have argued frequently that the commissioners and other row offices should be appointed, not elected. No other major city has elected officials handling elections. It’s time for another charter change vote: to eliminate this office.