An elections vendor recently got a contract to operate electronic poll books in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County beginning this November despite major issues in another Ohio county in 2015 that caused a judge to keep the polls open later.
Cuyahoga County’s elections director tells Watchdog.org, however, that his county plans a gradual ramp-up and has safeguards in place to avoid previous electronic polling pitfalls.
The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections agreed in February to contract with Tampa, Florida-based Tenex Software Solutions for electronic poll books beginning with the 2017 general election. The board will pay $1.7 million for the 1,450 books, with the state picking up 85 percent of the cost.
This will allow the county to replace those bulky paper rosters of registered voters at each polling location as election officials phase in the software during upcoming elections prior to November.
But, as Hamilton County discovered, new technology can sometimes have detrimental effects on elections.
Judge Robert Ruehlman ordered the polls to stay open an additional 90 minutes during the 2015 general election, and Ohio Secretary of State John Husted told boards of elections to embargo each county’s election results until 9 p.m. because glitches in Tenex’s electronic polling books caused long delays.
The county agreed to pay poll workers an additional $50,000 collectively for the additional time worked.
The Hamilton County Board of Elections post-election report found that 2,764 voters were told by Tenex’s software they had registered too late because the company did not update a database from a special election in August. Those voters had to vote provisionally, but many polling locations were short on provisional ballots, leading to more slowdowns.
Nearly 43 percent of voting locations experienced difficulty in locating registered voters in the books on election day. Most of those problems resulted from voters who didn’t have a date of birth in the database and couldn’t be found using a normal driver’s license scan.
“While this isn’t a failure of the e-Poll Book system, [precinct election officials’] confusion about how to look the voters up by other means forced a number of otherwise eligible, registered voters to be processed provisionally,” the report states.
The board worked with Tenex to create better instructions on the books on how to find voters when driver’s license scans were not being used.
That report also found that 65 percent of voting locations noted problems with router-to-printer connectivity, some of which was caused by workers unfamiliar with the new system. A post-election hearing discovered that poll workers felt the three hours of training they received on the new software was insufficient.
In all, nearly 84 percent of polling locations reported some problem related to the implementation of Tenex’s electronic polling software.
In the days after that 2015 general election, Republicans and Democrats alike were adamant the mistakes wouldn’t be repeated. The Cincinnati Enquirer called the programming errors “egregious,” and Tenex founder and president Ravi Kallem said the company was sorry for the issues.
“It’s a simple human error,” he said then. “I apologize for that. It’s our responsibility.”
Kallem didn’t return a call from Watchdog.org.
Former President Barack Obama’s Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended the adoption of electronic polling books in 2014, saying they reduced poll worker errors, reduced check-in times and provided “greater flexibility.” The Hamilton County BOE noted the books provided the advantage of allowing poll workers to look up voters countywide. The software also will scan IDs faster than the old process of looking through a paper book.
Cuyahoga County chose KNOWiNK and Tenex as finalists and decided to wait until after the 2016 general election to see how the companies performed. KNOWiNK had operations in 18 counties, compared to three for Tenex.
Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Director Pat McDonald told Watchdog that KNOWiNK’s bid was $1.95 million, or $250,000 higher than Tenex’s bid.
McDonald said Cuyahoga County will phase in the new software slowly, with 76 of 380 polling locations using it during the May 2 election and a to-be-determined number of sites using the equipment during the September election.
“This controlled stage gate process allows us to evaluate results at each stage, identify process and software fixes and be ready for a large countywide general election,” he said.
McDonald said Hamilton County was one of the first to implement electronic poll books on a large scale in Ohio.
“We worked with them and other counties that have gone through e-poll book implementations and identified the best practices,” he said. “Most of these counties have identified training as one of the success factors. We have developed an extensive training program that will be used for this small May election and subsequently refined.”
McDonald also said Cuyahoga County would be using different equipment than what Hamilton County used in 2015, and that equipment has been successfully implemented in other counties.
“We are very comfortable that the equipment and printers we purchased can perform as expected,” he said.
Kallem told Cleveland.com the problems were resolved and past elections using Tenex software ran smoothly.
Following the election flap in 2015, Alex Triantafilou, a member of the Hamilton County Board of Elections and chairman of the county GOP, noted the 2016 presidential election was looming and “we’ve got to get it right” in the battleground state.
“There’s no sugarcoating it,” he told the Enquirer. “Last night was a disaster, and we need to fix it.”
Reached by Watchdog this week, Triantafilou now calls the problems that occurred that day “very minor issues” caused by “the rollout of brand new technology and the expected learning curve.”
He said the county encountered practically no problems with the Tenex software during the primary and general elections of 2016.
“Tenex was great and worked with us to solve the normal and expected issues with new technologies,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of Tenex and the way they’ve handled elections in Hamilton County.”