It’s Deja Vu in San Bernardino County and in particular at its Registrar of Voters Office.
In 2019, the State of California is putting the squeeze on 52 of the state’s 58 counties that have not yet done so to transition to more up-to-date voting systems, ones that are computerized, standardized, secure, fast and voter-friendly.
Almost sixteen years ago, San Bernardino County was subjected to a similar demand emanating out of Sacramento, and was stampeded into making a premature choice to spend $13.9 million to purchase touch screen voting machines. Thereafter, the state threw the county a curve, decertifying the voting system the county had just purchased, insisting it jettison that system in favor of an equally expensive alternative system, a virtual squandering of the $13.9 million.
As a result, the county ended up defying the state by using the voting system it had acquired in late 2003 in the 2004 primary and general elections, and never used it again other than as an assistance tool to handicapped voters, going back to a tried, trusted and true paper ballot system thereafter. This embittered county officials toward the state over what was seen as a wasting of nearly $14 million, money San Bernardino County’s taxpayers had shelled out to make the hasty compliance the state had demanded. Along the way, the county’s registrar of voters and his assistant, each of whom did yeoman’s work in seeking to deal with what would turn into a virtually impossible set of demands, were scapegoated and cashiered.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla on February 27 of this year issued an edict calling for voting officials throughout the state to transition to voting systems that are in compliance with the California Voting System Standards adopted in 2015, and that they do so in time to accommodate the need to conduct polling in conjunction with the March 3, 2020 California Primary election. Padilla insists that the revamping take place in order “to strengthen the security of California’s election infrastructure.” Padilla has initiated the process for withdrawing certification or conditional approval of voting systems that were not tested or certified under the most recent state security standards. Padilla has given indication he will consider granting waivers on the requirement until December 2020 to those county’s which can demonstrate they are unable to meet that deadline if they request an extension as of three weeks from today, April 5, and can make a bona fide hardship demonstration. Nevertheless, San Bernardino County, with a paper ballot system considered to be the most antiquated system in the state, is not likely to get a pass from Padilla.
When Registrar of Voters Michael Scarpello was sacked last July, Bob Page, the principal management analyst in County Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride’s office, was designated to take his place as interim registrar. The challenge of making the system changeover represents an unforeseen risk to Page’s career, which hinges on whether he can bring the county into compliance with Padilla’s order, and not make any of several potentially costly errors in doing so.
One issue is that the county has been told by the state that it has six tentative options in choosing a voting system to employ. Those are Dominion Voting Inc’s Democracy Suite 5.2 Voting System; the County of Los Angeles’ Voting Solutions for All People Tally 1.0 System; Hart Intercivic’s Verity Voting 3.0.1 Voting System; Dominion Voting Systems, Inc’s Democracy Suite 5.10; the County of Los Angeles’s Voting Solutions for All People Tally Version 2.0; and Election Systems and Software, Inc’s EVS 126.96.36.199.
At present, three of the six have have been tested and certified to the California Voting System Standards—Dominion Voting Inc’s Democracy Suite 5.2, the County of Los Angeles’ Voting Solutions for All People Tally 1.0 and Hart Intercivic’s Verity Voting 3.0.1. The three others, Dominion Voting Systems, Inc’s Democracy Suite 5.10; the County of Los Angeles’s Voting Solutions for All People Tally Version 2.0; and the Election Systems and Software, Inc’s EVS 188.8.131.52, are currently being tested and reviewed to see if they meet the California Voting System Standards.
If Page chooses wisely and things work out, he is likely to burnish himself a reputation that will stand him in good stead when a replacement registrar of voters is finally selected and he returns to the post of principal management analyst in the county administrative office.
The possibility exists that no matter what Page does it will be the wrong selection, as the capricious Padilla, like former California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley before him, could unilaterally decide in two months or six months or next year or two or three years from now that one or more of those systems no longer pass muster with the state, and the county will need to replace it, at a cost of as much as $20 million. Indeed, if Page makes the wrong selection, County Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride will send Assistant County Administrative Officer Leonard Hernandez, who is the San Bernardino County governmental structure’s version of the grim reaper – i.e., the fellow that does all of the senior staff firing – to lop Page’s head off.
Page’s potential fate would be a repeat of what then-San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Scott Konopasek experienced in 2004.
Konopasek was San Bernardino County’s registrar of voters in 2003, having been hired into that position after he had held the chief elections officer position with Snohomish County in Washington State. A major issue Konopasek was called upon to contend with during his tenure was meeting the State of California’s mandate, encouraged by then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, that San Bernardino County upgrade its voting system. Shelley said any of three systems available on the market at that time, touchscreen systems manufactured by Maximus and Hart Intercivic, Sequoia Voting Systems and Diebold Voting Systems, would meet his requirements. After carrying out his own careful analysis, Konopasek recommended that the county purchase, at what ultimately turned out to be a cost of $13.9 million, a touchscreen voting system manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems. The county had committed to using that system in the 2004 Primary, which was held that year in California in March. Prior to that election, however, Shelley withdrew his certification of electronic voting machines throughout the state because, he said, they had uncertified software upgrades which could be vulnerable to tampering. Konopasek confidently went ahead with using the newly-purchased machines in that year’s elections, asserting they had been previously certified. The county backed Konopasek, but less than two weeks after the November 2004 election, Konopasek and Steve Trout, Konopasek’s right-hand man, were relieved of their positions as the county’s registrar of voters and assistant registrar of voters, respectively.
Page told the Sentinel he would not venture a guess as to whether or not Secretary of State Padilla can be counted upon to stand by his current certifications of the voting machines he has deemed acceptable for use in California elections.
“Questions about Padilla and his goals should be directed to the secretary of state,” said Page.
Page was asked why the county could not simply utilize the Sequoia systems by updating them with current software certified by Padilla.
“Padilla announced he would decertify the voting system the county currently uses effective 8/27/19,” said Page. “The systems that will maintain certification after that date use different hardware and software.”
Page gave indication the county is not contemplating, at least at this point, purchasing anything other than the three voting machines that have already been certified – Dominion Voting Inc.’s Democracy Suite 5.2, the County of Los Angeles’ Voting Solutions for All People Tally 1.0 and Hart Intercivic’s Verity Voting 3.0.1. “There are three voting systems that are certified and available to use after 2/27/20,” he said.
Page said he was not prepared to discuss costs or prices associated with the machines at this point. “Questions about what it costs vendors to maintain certification should be directed to the vendors,” he said.
When the Sentinel told Page its calculations of the price tag for a new system would fall somewhere near the $18 million-to-$19 million range, Page said, “We don’t want to say how much we think the system will eventually cost before we begin the procurement process, but we believe it will be significantly more than the $11.8 million the registrar of voters office might receive from the available state grant and county matching funds.”
Page indicated that because of the differences in the hardware and software used in the Sequoia system and the more current systems that have been certified, interposing a technical fix to the existing voting machines was doubtful or impossible.
In response to an inquiry as to whether the county was actively contemplating an adaptive solution rather than buying new machines altogether, Page indicated the county is most likely to meet its needs by purchasing an off-the-shelf product that has been certified by the secretary of state’s office. “There are three voting systems certified by the California Secretary of State,” said Page. “And, one of those is a partial system developed by Los Angeles County that is not currently offered for use by other counties. The remainder of Los Angeles County’s system is being reviewed by the secretary of state for certification. So, there are two vendors that could potentially provide a certified voting system to the county before the secretary of state’s deadline.”
Asked how likely it is that there will be a repeat of the decertification fiasco that occurred under Shelley with Padilla, Page said, “That is not something the registrar of voters office can predict. This question should be directed to the secretary of state.”
As to what steps Page is taking to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2004 and that he doesn’t himself become a scapegoat in the mold of Konopasek before him, Page said, “The registrar of voters’ role is to ensure that voters can exercise their right to vote on a secure, accurate, and reliable voting system that is certified by the secretary of state. The registrar of voters office will continue to do this.”
In response to an inquiry about what he will do this time to make sure that a new voting system can be upgraded rather than thrown out when it is deemed obsolete, Page said, “The capability of the certified voting systems to be upgraded through software upgrades rather than hardware replacement is a component of the systems that will be evaluated during the competitive procurement process.”
It is not unthinkable that the county will network with other counties to pressure the vendors into not continuing with their “planned obsolescence” of voting machines, Page said. “Collaboration with other jurisdictions is a principle value of the registrar of voters office,” he said. “Until the certified systems can be evaluated by the registrar of voters office, it is premature to state whether or not they can meet the registrar of voters’ current and future needs.”
It’s Deja Vu in San Bernardino County and in particular at its Registrar of Voters Office.