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Software problem slowed Johnson County vote counting on election night

Software that malfunctioned and stalled vote tallying in Johnson County for more than three hours on election night was of the same brand that has been under scrutiny for years and has caused counting errors in other parts of the country.

The Global Election Management System – or GEMS – was not the only cause of a breakdown on election night, but it was definitely one of the most frustrating, said county Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker.

Vote counters lost hours of time as they waited for help from a technical support person in Nebraska who they hoped could tell them why the system suddenly dropped 2,100 ballots from its database and how to get them back. When that help wasn’t forthcoming, the workers ended up re-scanning the paper ballots so they could be re-loaded into the database.

In the end, election officials didn’t get their closing totals out until about 1:30 p.m. the next day, due to the computer breakdown and tidal waves of last-minute registrations and advance votes, Metsker said.

Concerns about GEMS are nothing new in Johnson County.

Former election commissioner Brian Newby warned that the system was drastically out of date before he left to become director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission last year.

Metsker has said the voting machines, which were manufactured around 2003 or 2004, are thought to be the oldest in use in the country. While voting machines were not part of the problem Nov. 8th, they use the same software as the scanners.

Earlier this year the county commission agreed to put new voting machines, which would come with new software, in its budget plan for about $12.8 million. But a vendor has yet to be chosen because there aren’t any on the market now that Metsker especially likes. Metsker has said he’s interested in a new system that has not yet been certified by Newby’s agency.

GEMS is part of Election Systems and Software, formerly Diebold Inc. The electronic voting vendor has its roots in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, famous for the “hanging chad” controversy from old paper punch voting machines.

After that election, there was a nationwide rush to install electronic voting machines and software. But problems have been documented with the now-aging system either dropping votes or miscounting them.

Last year, for example, the same system dropped ballots in the Memphis municipal elections. Other reports have identified the system as being vulnerable to hacking, although that has not been a part of the concern about the Johnson County vote.

The system does not affect the voter registration rolls. The county’s new electronic poll books and scanners were not part of the software mishap, Metsker said.

Problems in the election office really started in mid- October with a surge in voter registrations at the last minute, he said. “We had a run on the bank Oct. 18. We just got slammed,” he said.

Most of those registrations were not new, he said. Instead, people were making sure their records were up to date with name, address and party affiliation changes.

Workers finally got caught up on the registration lists two days before the next tsunami — mail-in ballots.

By law, ballots can’t be mailed to absentee voters before Oct. 19. Because of slow delivery by the U.S. Postal Service, it sometimes took a week to get the ballots even into nearby zip codes, Metsker said.

The office also got complaints from parents who said their students in other states never received their ballots. Metsker said in those cases, the office used FedEx to send a replacement, but it had to be a provisional ballot.

Counting mail-in ballots is a tedious and time consuming task. “You don’t just open and count them,” he said.

Information has to be validated and checked against the registration, and the handwriting on the signature is checked before the ballot can go through a scanner. Even then, there can be problems, he said. If there is any doodling in the margins, a coffee spill or a tear, the scanner will spit it back out.

Metsker figures 51,000 or 52,000 ballots were mailed out. As the polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, officials were still working on them.

By about 7:40 p.m., the first of the cards from the voting machines came in. But because GEMS couldn’t accept information from the voting machines and scanners at the same time, Metsker said he told his scanning team to finish up first before starting the election-day vote.

The Kansas Secretary of State also joined the mix, with a first-time-ever order for the county to report partial totals several times in the evening. But by the time the first hour had gone, no totals were ready. “So already our plan was up in smoke,” Metsker said.

“It got later and later, and it was taking longer than any of us expected or projected,” he said. By about 10 p.m., Metsker told his crew to stop scanning and report what they had so the county could start on the voting machine cards.

But when workers began to upload the data, they saw that they were short 2,100 ballots. They spent over three hours with tech support trying to fix the problem. What they got was mostly silence, Metsker said.

“Our needs were not met there at all,” Metsker said. “It’s not a great place to be when you service provider can’t give any trouble shooting tips.”

Early Wednesday morning, after a scary system crash and reboot in which Metsker feared a “genuine tailspin,” the workers were able to reset to the last uncorrupted file saved at 8 p.m. Although late, the office was eventually able to report out other totals.

The count of voting machine cards went smoothly, and the scanning team, which had been told to go home and rest while other votes were counted, returned in the morning to finish their re-scanning.

The election was Metsker’s seventh since taking office in January, but by far the biggest. He still doesn’t know the exact causes of the computer malfunction, but told the county commission he will keep looking.

“First of all we are very frustrated, embarrassed and pledge to dig deeply into what occurred on our technical problems with equipment in the election office to discover what happened and what we can do to make sure something like that does not happen again,” he said.

Commissioners reassured him that they’d heard a lot of compliments about how advance in-person voting had gone. Commissioner John Toplikar expressed his sentiments: “The time it takes to get things done is not near as critical as to get it done right.”