Johnson County election officials defended their new voting machines Wednesday but apologized for a horrendous delay in providing election results and vowed to make sure such a debacle never occurs again.
A combination of long lines and computer problems with the new voting machines led to the all-night delay in Johnson County releasing primary election results, according to Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker.
“I’m embarrassed for our county,” Metsker said as results, which had been highly anticipated nationwide because of two high-profile races, were finally released about 8 a.m. Wednesday. “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, Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software, had worked 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 the county’s registered voters, which is more than a normal August primary. About 118,700 votes were cast in the county, although more than 25,000 of those were advance votes that were counted early in the night.
Metsker said that level of voter interest 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. Lines at some places meant polls didn’t completely close until after 8 p.m., more than an hour late, which postponed the start of the vote count.
Metsker said the new voting machines themselves worked well in terms of properly recording the voters’ choices and providing a backup paper audit trail.
The primary 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 each polling location onto a “master stick,” or thumb drive, and the process broke down in uploading the results from the master sticks to the reporting software, he said.
“What should have taken seconds at first took minutes, and then minutes turned into half hours,” he said.
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.
Election Systems & Software representatives were not available to answer detailed questions Wednesday. They issued a statement saying the secure tabulated results were physically transported to the Johnson County election office in a timely manner after the polls closed Tuesday night.
“The delay in reporting results was due to slow processing of the election media on encrypted thumb drives,” the statement said. “Despite slower than normal processing, the reporting is now complete, and the accuracy of the results was never in question.”
The vendor went on to say that, “Johnson County followed proper procedures in conducting their election. ES&S takes accountability for and apologizes for the slower than normal upload of results. The ES&S development team is working around the clock, performing a forensic analysis, to identify the root cause of the slow results reporting. ES&S is committed to expeditiously providing a solution.”
Several critics said Wednesday that Johnson County’s election performance was abysmal, especially since it followed another serious delay in releasing results in November 2016.
In 2016, the problem was attributed to old and outdated machines. This time it was blamed on brand new machines.
“First of all, when you spend $10.5 million, residents of Johnson County deserve to have it done right,” said Becky Fast, who is running for a county commission seat in November. She said she was eagerly following some of the primary races and still awaiting results when she finally went to bed at 4 a.m.
Fast said she worked for then-U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore of Kansas from 1999 to 2011, and during that time Johnson County was consistently prompt and efficient in releasing election results before the 10 p.m. news.
“When taxpayers spend $10.5 million, they deserve punctuality and efficiency,” she said.
Janeé Hanzlick, who is running for a different seat on the county commission in November, agreed.
She said that, if elected, she would call for a full audit of the election office. “People deserve to have that reassurance that everything is as it should be,” she said.
Hanzlick voted in advance and got some useful instruction about the new machines. She said it’s a bit complicated to get familiar with the devices, and the county should have factored in that extra time when anticipating voter turnout.
While Metsker was in the hot seat and answering media questions throughout election day and into Wednesday, those he reports to said they still have confidence in him.
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, Metsker was chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party and a state representative.
Metsker reports to Kobach, who said Wednesday that he still has faith in the Johnson County election official.
“This is deploying a whole new system,” Kobach said at a press conference, adding that he heard voters liked the new machines.
“The fact that the software wasn’t uploading the data fast enough for most people’s satisfaction, including my own, doesn’t mean that he did anything wrong or that there’s anything negative or problematic about Ronnie,” he said. “I do have faith in Ronnie Metsker. And I think the people of Johnson County do. He’s impeccably fair.”
Gov. Jeff Colyer, Kobach’s opponent in the still-undecided primary, also called Metsker “a good man.”
Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County board of commissioners, said he still trusts the voting machines, which had been certified by the Secretary of State’s office and federal election officials. He didn’t blame Metsker for the problems.
“Ronnie is very conscientious and he does a good job,” Eilert said.
Eilert said that he holds the vendor accountable, and the company won’t be fully paid until the problem is fixed.
“They owned up to the fact that this is not acceptable,” Eilert said.
Metsker acknowledged that Johnson County’s new system, called ExpressVote or EVS 6000, was using brand new software, just 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.
Other voting systems, such as the one used Douglas County, also provide a paper trail with a paper ballot. But Metsker says that Johnson County’s culture is to have electronic voting machines, and these machines fit that bill.
The previous machines dated from 2002 and were reaching the end of their useful life, he said.
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.
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.