‘I’m embarrassed for our county.’ Johnson County election commissioner explains delay

A combination of long lines and computer problems with new voting machines led to an all-night delay in Johnson County being able to release primary election results.

“I’m embarrassed for our county,” Johnson County election commissioner Ronnie Metsker said Wednesday morning. “Our county is not accustomed to having this kind of event. It’s embarrassing for our office, it’s embarrassing for me, for our team and for the vendor.”

Metsker said the engineers for the vendor had been working all night to try to identify the problem.

“We will dig into the bottom, get it corrected, resolve it and then make sure that it never happens again,” he said.

One factor, Metsker said, was a higher than expected turnout of nearly 30 percent of registered voters in the county, which is more than a normal August primary. He said that was not expected in May when the office was planning the staffing. He said in hindsight they should have had more machines and more poll workers.

Metsker said the new voting machines themselves worked well in terms of recording the voters’ choices and providing a backup paper audit trail.

The delay occurred, he said, in the process of uploading the data from the tabulated results for each of the 192 polling locations. Results are gathered from the polling locations onto a “master stick,” or thumb drive, he said, and the process broke down in uploading the results from the master stick to the reporting software.

“What should have taken seconds at first took minutes, and then minutes turned into half-hours,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the vendor, Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software, said results were physically transported to the Johnson County election office in a timely manner Tuesday night.

“The delay in reporting results is attributed to slow upload times of the election media (thumb drives). While the reporting is now complete (and the results secure at all times) the timeliness was slower than normal,” she said. “We will be working with the county to determine the cause of the delay so that it can be corrected before the next election.”

Metsker acknowledged that Johnson County was using brand-new software certified July 2. It was the first time in the country that voting machines with this kind of particular configuration were used. He said one other election jurisdiction, in Texas, has also ordered this model but won’t use them until November.

Still, Metsker said he has complete confidence that the equipment is safe, secure and appropriate for Johnson County.

Metsker had highly touted this new system when the County Commission voted in May to approve the purchase of 2,100 voting machines at a cost of about $10.5 million.

“These new machines will provide the latest technology with significantly improved features, most important of which is the voter verifiable paper audit trail,” Metsker said at the time.

Other voting systems also provide a paper trail with a paper ballot. But Metsker said at the time that Johnson County’s culture was to have electronic voting machines, and these machines fit that bill.

He reiterated Wednesday morning that Johnson County voters decided in 1967 to use electronic machines — “the voters want that machine.”

The previous machines dated from 2002 and were reaching the end of their useful life, he said.

The vendor of the new system, called ExpressVote, is Election Systems & Software.

About 1,000 of the new machines were to be in place Tuesday, when turnout was expected to be lower than for the general election. But long lines were reported at some polling places Tuesday, and although polls were supposed to close at 7 p.m., a few didn’t close until about an hour later because people were already in line to vote.

In May, when commissioners approved the purchase from Election Systems & Software, a competing vendor, Henry M. Adkins and Son Inc., protested. Adkins filed a formal letter of complaint over the long delay between the time the election office sought proposals for the new equipment in 2015 and when ExpressVote was selected.

Election Systems & Software submitted a higher bid than Adkins; various estimates discussed at the May 17 commission meeting put ES&S’s bid anywhere between $1.2 million and $5 million more than Adkins.

“In all of our experience with RFPs, we haven’t ever participated in a process quite like this,” said Brad Bryant, a representative of the Adkins team at the May 17 commission meeting. “And we wonder if the county is getting the best deal it can get if it purchases off a three-year-old RFP.”

County officials said at the time that they were confident the selection was proper and that the new system was the right choice.

Johnson County also had significant delays in election results in November 2016. At that time, Metsker blamed a software malfunction. He noted that those machines, the Global Election Management System, were 14 years old and some of the oldest in use in the country.

Metsker was appointed Johnson County election commissioner in February 2016 by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, now a Republican candidate for governor and one of those whose election results were delayed until Wednesday morning. Metsker’s annual salary was about $105,000 in 2017.

Before he became election commissioner, he was chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party and a state representative.