It is likely to be a banner year for the voting equipment industry with state and local election offices planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new machines ahead of the 2020 election.
This year's purchases will probably amount to the biggest buying wave since right after the 2000 presidential election, when officials rushed to replace discredited punch card machines with touchscreen voting equipment. Those machines are rapidly aging and are being replaced with machines that leave a paper backup as a result of security concerns about purely electronic voting.
The voting equipment purchases come at a time of increased scrutiny over the security and integrity of elections following Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
Some states, such as Georgia, South Carolina and Delaware, are replacing all of their voting machines, while several other states, including California, Ohio and Pennsylvania, are replacing much of their equipment. About one quarter of voters live in the states doing most of the buying.
The buying spree has also put a focus on the close ties between vendors and the government officials who buy their equipment. Advocacy groups and some politicians allege that vendors have unduly influenced the procurement process in many places, something the companies and election officials deny.
Part of the concern is that only three companies dominate the market. Election Systems & Software (ES&S) is the largest, followed by Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic. All three companies have worked extremely closely with election officials for years, with the vendors often spending thousands of dollars to sponsor conferences and receptions attended by the officials. The industry also hires former election officials to represent them.
Last year, McClatchy reported that ES&S had set up a customer advisory board composed of between 10 and 15 state and local election officials, many of whom at some point had a role in choosing new voting equipment.
The stated purpose of the board was to share information about voting trends and equipment needs. But the company also paid travel expenses for some of the officials to attend two meetings a year, including one trip to Las Vegas, leading to charges of potential conflicts of interest.
Kathy Rogers, senior vice president of government relations for ES&S, told NPR that criticism of election officials who took part in the board's work was "very unfair," but that she "wouldn't put anyone in that situation again" and that no future meetings are planned and the board is unlikely to be continued.
Still, the issue continues to be a factor in purchasing debates. Some former advisory board participants have recused themselves from buying decisions to avoid the appearance of favoritism, even if they had state ethics approval of their participation. That includes South Carolina Election Director Marci Andino, who had about $19,000 in travel expenses covered by ES&S during the 10 years she served on the board. South Carolina is preparing to replace all of its touchscreen voting machines by next year, at an estimated cost of more than $60 million.
The news that a Pennsylvania county election official had also served on the board led that state's auditor general, Eugene DePasquale, to ask officials in all 67 counties to report any gifts they had received from voting machine vendors. Eighteen said that they had, with the gifts ranging from expense-paid trips to Las Vegas, to winery tours to boxes of chocolate-covered pretzels.
DePasquale says that taking even small gifts, which are allowed under state law, "smacks of impropriety." The state expects to spend some $150 million on new voting equipment for next year's elections and competition between vendors to get a slice of the business is fierce.
DePasquale says decisions about what equipment to buy should be based on "security and long-term effectiveness for the voters as opposed to who was taking people out on wine tours and amusement park trips." He says he has no evidence that the gifts have influenced specific buying decisions, but says even the appearance of special treatment undermines public confidence. DePasquale has written to colleagues in other states suggesting that they conduct similar audits.
Edgardo Cortes, who served as Virginia's elections commissioner until last year, says he declined ES&S's invitation to join the advisory board because he felt it would be inappropriate. But he also does not believe that expense-paid trips and gifts play a role in equipment purchasing decisions as much as the personal relationships election officials develop with company representatives over time.
"We know them. We've been doing business for a long time. We'll keep them, not because they're necessarily offering the best deal, but because we're comfortable working with them," Cortes said, explaining how the close relationship can affect buying decisions.
"Vendors over voters?"
If nothing else, close ties with vendors have provided ammunition to those fighting purchasing decisions. Nowhere is that the case more so than in Georgia, where there is ongoing debate over replacing all of its paperless voting equipment with systems that use paper.
Democrats have complained that Republicans, who control the state government, are especially cozy with ES&S, one of a handful of bidders on the project. Gov. Brian Kemp (himself the former top election official in Georgia) hired a former lobbyist for the company as his deputy chief of staff and Rogers, the company's head of government relations, is the state's former elections director. The governor's top lawyer was on an ES&S advisory council.
Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent, who opposes the type of equipment the state is preparing to purchase — which includes an electronic marking device that produces a paper ballot — condemned the close ties between the company and the state.
"I've been given absolutely no good reason why we should buy these things. There's not one good reason. So therefore it just reeks of corruption, that we're prioritizing vendors over voters," Parent said on the Senate floor during a debate in March.
Republicans counter that the type of machine they want to buy is preferable to simple hand-marked ballots because it eliminates confusion over voter intent.
Still, many computer security experts and activist groups have raised concerns that the ballot-marking devices, which may use a barcode to tally votes, are vulnerable to manipulation.
Several vendors have bid on the contract, which is expected to be awarded in July.
Jeb Cameron, regional sales director for ES&S in Georgia, says if the company wins the contract it will be due to the product and the price and he defended how the company operates.
"Of course we've built relationships in the state. I would say we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't build those close relationships," Cameron said.
Other voting machine vendors also have lobbyists and representatives working hard to secure more business.
Concerned about the impact, several congressional Democrats have called for greater federal oversight of election vendors and stricter security requirements for the equipment they're trying to sell. So far, those proposals have gone nowhere. States and localities have resisted federal mandates when it comes to elections, which are generally their responsibility.
The vendors recognize that scrutiny about purchases is likely to grow as the 2020 elections approach, especially with intelligence community warnings that the U.S. election system remains a target for hackers.
In a letter last month to four senators, ES&S President and CEO Tom Burt wrote that the company supports legislation requiring vendors to submit their systems to stronger security testing and mandating both paper ballots and post-election audits to ensure the accuracy of the vote.
The senators — Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mark Warner, D-Va., Jack Reed, D-R.I. and Gary Peters, D-Mich. — wrote to ES&S, Dominion and Hart in March, noting that their companies make up about 92 percent of the voting machine market.
"The integrity of our elections is directly tied to the machines we vote on — the products that you make," they wrote. "Despite shouldering such a massive responsibility there has been a lack of meaningful innovation in the election vendor industry and our democracy is paying the price."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Election officials are expecting to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new voting equipment before next year's elections. This is the biggest wave of purchases in over a decade. And it comes at a time of increased concern about election security. It also comes amid questions about the close relationship between voting machine vendors and the officials who are buying their equipment. And to talk about this, I'm joined by NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers the issue.
Hi there, Pam.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: Let me start with a basic question. Why now are we seeing so many voting machines being purchased?
FESSLER: Well, there are two reasons. First, a lot of the existing equipment that state and local election officials now use was purchased after the 2000 elections. And it's just getting old. It needs to be replaced. The second reason is security. Especially in light of concerns about Russian hacking attempts, there's this nationwide push to replace all paperless voting machines, which are still used in about a dozen states, with ones that produce paper ballots. These paper ballots can always be counted to make sure that the results are accurate in case there are any concerns. So we are seeing entire states like Georgia, South Carolina and Delaware getting all new equipment. And some big states like California, Pennsylvania and Ohio are also buying new machines.
GREENE: OK. So why are people raising alarm bells about how these companies - or which companies are selling these machines?
FESSLER: It's a really, really small industry. Three vendors dominate the market. We have Election Systems & Software known as ES&S, then Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic. And it's a really small community. The vendors, the election officials, they all know each other. They've been working together for years. They go to conferences together. Sometimes, the vendors sponsor the conferences. And the companies also hire former election officials to work for them. There was a big controversy last year when it was revealed that a number of election officials were serving on an ES&S customer advisory board.
GREENE: Oh, wow.
FESSLER: The purpose was to discuss voting trends and to, you know, share information. But it also meant that ES&S was paying thousands of dollars for some of these officials to travel to cities such as Las Vegas for meetings. And that raised some eyebrows, you know, especially at a time when states are spending all this money to buy new equipment.
GREENE: I mean, you want to assume that election officials are making decisions based on what's best for voters and for election security in the country. Is there any evidence that these ties have had some sort of negative influence over these decisions?
FESSLER: I haven't seen any evidence of, like, a quid pro quo. But I do think it's about appearances. And we're at a time when officials are trying to instill public confidence to make people feel more comfortable in the integrity of our elections, that there's nothing nefarious going on. But we have cases where recently, Pennsylvania's auditor general asked all the county election officials in the state if they'd accepted gifts from vendors, and 18 said that they had. These gifts ranged from, you know, trips paid to Las Vegas but also to things like, you know, boxes of chocolate-covered pretzels. But the auditor general said even small gifts, quote, "smacks of impropriety." And this has become a really, really big issue in Georgia, where reporter Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE has been covering the debate over what new voting machines the state should buy.
WILL WESLEY: Once they sign in, they're issued an activation card. The voter would insert that in the machine.
JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Will Wesley and I are standing in a crowded room near the Georgia Statehouse, looking at a table covered with touchscreen computers and some printers. Wesley is with the company ES&S. And he and some reps from other companies are here to show off voting equipment. Wesley chooses his favorite candidates by tapping one of ES&S's touch screens.
WESLEY: Now I'm going to go ahead and mark my card.
KAUFFMAN: The printer spits out a paper ballot with his selections he calls a card. Wesley picks up the piece of paper that just printed, looks at it and slides it into a scanner.
WESLEY: Doesn't matter - upside-down, backwards. It scans it. It takes approximately two to three seconds for it to scan. Thank you for voting. Your ballot's been counted. And it drops down into the ballot box.
KAUFFMAN: Earlier this year around the time of this demonstration, the state legislature was in session. And after the contested 2018 midterms in Georgia, election policy debates got especially heated. Republicans were pushing to change the law so the state would buy touch-screen voting machines, the kind ES&S and other companies are competing to sell the state. Republicans say the machines eliminate confusion over who voters intended to cast their ballot for. And they point out that election officials want the machines. But Democrats argued the voting machines are vulnerable to hacks and malfunction.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ELENA PARENT: Come on. This is a joke.
KAUFFMAN: That's Democratic state senator Elena Parent. Parent and other Democrats unsuccessfully argued for hand-marked paper ballots instead of the machines. During debate in the legislature, they brought up ES&S again and again, alleging corruption between the company and GOP officials.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PARENT: I've been given absolutely no good reason why we should buy these things. There's not one good reason. So therefore, it just reeks of corruption that we're prioritizing vendors over voters.
KAUFFMAN: There's no evidence of any rule-breaking. But there is a long list of ES&S staff and contractors with relationships to Georgia officials. Among them, the company's VP of government relations used to be the director of elections in the secretary of state's office. And a former ES&S lobbyist is the deputy chief of staff to Gov. Brian Kemp. Jeb Cameron is the regional sales manager in Georgia for ES&S, and he also used to work for the state.
JEB CAMERON: Of course we've built relationships in the state. I would say we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't build those close relationships.
KAUFFMAN: Georgia is set to buy new voting machines ahead of 2020. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office will award the contract. Here he is at a press conference earlier this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: I want to make sure that Georgians get the best possible value for what we're going to buy that's going to last us for the next 10 to 12 years.
KAUFFMAN: Raffensperger himself has few connections to ES&S, but he ran on the same GOP ticket as Gov. Brian Kemp, who does. I wanted to ask Raffensperger how he can guarantee this election process will be fair, but his staff didn't make him available for an interview or answer questions about how it's picking the new machines.
GREENE: Johnny Kauffman there giving us a window into this close relationship between election officials and these companies in the state of Georgia. NPR's Pam Fessler - still with me - she covers this around the country. Pam, what can be done to assure voters in the time that election security is such a big issue - you know, reassuring them that officials are making the best decisions here when it comes to buying equipment?
FESSLER: I think it's all about transparency. Some members of Congress have called for more federal oversight of vendors. But so far, those proposals haven't gone anywhere. State and local governments, which run elections, they don't want the federal government telling them what to do. But I do think, because there's so much concern about election security, that these deals are going to get a lot more public scrutiny in the coming year. And the vendors and the election officials are well aware of that. For its part, ES&S says it's no longer going to have those advisory board meetings planned because they don't want to put election officials in a compromising position.
GREENE: I see - already taking some steps. All right, NPR's Pam Fessler.
Pam, we appreciate it.
FESSLER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.