I’ll Do It Myself: RI SoS Takes Control of Voting Technology From State Board of Elections

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Different states have had different responses to the PCEA’s recognition of an “impending crisis” in voting technology – looking for funding, accelerating implementation of replacement machines or even revising testing and certification requirements – but in Rhode Island, new Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is starting the process by doing what many of her colleagues nationwide already can: taking authority over the process. In particular, she is supporting legislation (about to become law) that will transfer that authority from the State Board of Elections.

Unfortunately for some members of the Board, that change came as a surprise. The Providence Journal has more:

After approving a contract with the vendor that keeps the state’s obsolete voting equipment functional, members of the Board of Elections on Thursday expressed dismay that they had not been told they were losing the authority to buy new voting machines.

Robert Kando, executive director of the Board of Elections, did not attend the board’s 3:30 p.m. meeting, although Elections Director Robert B. Rapoza was there, as were six of its seven commissioners.

Rapoza outlined for the commissioners how legislation passed Wednesday by both the House and the Senate was changing their duties. In identical bills, H-6312 and S-0999, he said, the secretary of state, instead of the Board of Elections, would have the authority to set the specifications for the purchase and oversight of new voting machines.

The Journal article suggests that one reason for the switch was the apparent lack of progress on upgrading technology despite a lengthy (and close) relationship between the Board and the state’s voting technology vendor:

The vendor that supports the machines that collect and tally ballots, which have to be programmed separately for each municipality, has been Election Systems & Software, based in Omaha, Neb. The company occupies an office, for which it pays no rent, in the Board of Elections building at 50 Branch Ave., Rapoza told the commissioners.

Commissioner Frank J. Rego commended Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea for taking action to correct “issues that needed to be corrected” and streamlining the process for buying elections equipment.

The machines were last updated in 1997.

Commissioner Stephen P. Erickson read from a timeline he compiled that showed the lack of progress on replacing equipment since 2009, when a contract with ES&S was renewed for two years while the board worked to acquire new equipment. No equipment was purchased during that contract, nor during the four-year contract signed in 2011. In 2013, Erickson said, Kando told a House committee that his primary request was for a new building, not new voting equipment.

In 2014, ES&S said it would make no security or software updates after July 1, 2015.

That led the SoS to make her move legislatively – and the Board now sees no reason to fight it:

In February, Erickson said, Gorbea informed the Board of Election staff that she will introduce legislation transferring to her office the authority to buy voting equipment. Kando did not inform the commissioners until June 15.

Asking the governor to veto the legislation, Erickson said, “would be an exercise in futility.”

Vice Chairman William West said he would not call for a vote indicating the board’s position on the legislation, which needs only the governor’s signature to take effect.

It would seem that there is an interesting backstory here about why Board staff didn’t inform commissioners about the change – and I’ll be watching to see if more details emerge. For now, though, it’s enough to know that the SoS will soon be making technology decisions in Rhode Island – and given how swiftly she has taken control it’s fair to expect things might start happening a lot more quickly. Stay tuned …

1 Comment on "I’ll Do It Myself: RI SoS Takes Control of Voting Technology From State Board of Elections"

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