[Image courtesy of wikimedia]
Earlier this week when writing about Arkansas’ new voting system purchase, I talked about the twists and turns that can occur with such efforts – namely, concerns about costs and the process used to choose a vendor. (As if to prove my point, the Secretary of State announced yesterday that funding issues is leading to a scaled-back pilot program in four counties that will not require new money from the Legislature.)
But nothing draws attention or raises eyebrows quite like concerns that an election office is making spending decisions without enough process in place to ensure value for taxpayers. That’s the current situation in Lee County (Ft. Myers), FL where county election supervisor Sharon Harrington, under fire for two large but questionable purchasing decisions, has requested an audit of her office. The News-Press has more:
Sharon Harrington, Lee County supervisor of elections, rescinded her $890,000 request Wednesday to fix the issue of incompatible iPads.
Harrington also said she would ask the county to audit her office following controversial purchases that nearly caused taxpayers to foot a bill of $1.6 million in incompatible iPads.
The audit by Linda Doggett, Lee clerk of court, could start as soon as two weeks and take between two and three months at a cost of about $20,000. The audit will review the purchases, procedures and policies of Harrington.
The iPads in question are under scrutiny for two reasons. First, the units themselves apparently aren’t configured to do what the County expected:
Harrington spent almost $750,000 on 800 iPads for voters to register with, but the tablets weren’t compatible when the IT staff wanted to stretch their value and have them be used for early voting. Harrington never had an independent contractor check to see if the iPads were compatible nor did she put the project out for a competitive public bid. She was asking for the $890,000 to replace the system …
The mistake stems from Harrington’s staff trying to stretch the use of the iPads so that they could be used for early voting check-in devices but realized they wouldn’t work. The money she was asking for was to get devices that can handle a few phases of the election process including check-in and registration.
Harrington said her staff was upgrading technology that was about 20 years old and realized that they could streamline their process by eliminating the paper voter logs and having voters use iPads.
[UPDATE: I heard from a representative of KNOWiNK, the company that manufactures the Poll Pads, who says that the problem is not with his company’s product but instead is related to another company’s unwillingness to allow the Pads live access to the voter registration system.]
The bigger problem, though, is that Harrington’s office apparently never put these purchases through a formal procurement process:
One of the wrinkles that most confused commissioners was the fact that Harrington nearly spent $1.6 million without putting either of the projects out for bid.
[Lee County Commissioner Larry] Kiker said he is not familiar with all of the state rules governing Harrington’s office, but he knows why other governmental agencies fill out requests for proposals.
“We are compelled to look at the budgets and ask questions and much of that is based upon them being experts in their field,” he said. “We do not get involved in their operations so that is sometimes a difficult bridge to cross with where do you start and where do you end with your questioning.”
After scrutiny from the county commission, Harrington appeared at a press conference and announced that while she believed her office is prepared to manage elections in 2015 and 2016, she had sent the commission a letter cancelling the second request and requesting an audit of her office’s procedures:
Harrington read to members of the media Wednesday afternoon a letter she sent to Brian Hamman, chairman of the Board of Lee County Commissioners, explaining why she is repealing her controversial request: “Given the current conditions and for the sake of ensuring public trust, I want to let you know … that the Supervisor of Elections Office is respectfully withdrawing its budget request to the board … to replace our existing poll pads.”
Harrington refused to take questions and quickly left after reading the letter.
“I think she is taking the right approach with what she outlined in the letter,” Hamman said after the news conference. “… I think this has been a difficult conversation to have, but I appreciate the supervisor of elections having it with us. It was handled in a very respectful manner.”
Commissioners asked Harrington during a budget workshop Tuesday to request an operational audit, as she is the only one who can ask for a full audit by Doggett’s office.
Doggett said her office does those audits every three years for each of the Lee County government departments. Such an audit would look at contract procedures.
Doggett said Harrington had yet to officially ask for the audit.
Harrington’s office has never had such an audit — even after a 2012 voting nightmare in which there weren’t enough scanning machines, leading to voters waiting as long as five hours in line and some not getting to vote at all in the presidential election. Harrington apologized and promised to fix the issue by adding more scanners, which she did when commissioners gave her an extra $586,500 to buy 100 of them a year later.
The clerk’s office would probably bump the county’s transportation audit to start the process of looking at the elections office, which would include reviews of how staff applies the best industry practices and if they have enough oversight.
“There are always areas in an office where improvements can be made and I welcome any suggestions they may have,” Harrington wrote in her letter.
The Fort Myers accounting firm Tuscan & Co. audits the elections office every year, but that audit only looks at the office’s finances.
Doggett said the operational audit can only make recommendations, which could include ways of putting best controls in place.
Situations like these are a reminder the sometimes-confusing and occasionally-maddening procurement process serves to protect everyone involved: taxpayers (who know what’s being spent), vendors (who know what they’re being asked to provide) but especially election officials, whose management of public funds can become a distraction to the larger mission of the office if questions like these arrive. [If you click through to the News-Press there is a reader poll on whether Harrington should resign – never a good sidebar for the subject of a news article.]
It will be interesting to see what the audit finds and what recommendations are made – and I hope that report is shared with the public so we can all get the benefit of the exercise.