The Risky Way to Make an Important, Costly Decision

On March 11, Secretary of the State, Denise Merrill, released an RFP along with a Press Release: Secretary of the State Aims to Revolutionize Voting Devices for Persons with Disabilities in Connecticut<read> Invitation to bid <read>

We note that:

  • The whole time from RFP to response gives vendors just 20 days to respond.  That suggests that there is some vendor already selected and the process will be superficial.
  • All vendor questions are due only 6 days after the RFP was issued.
  • There is a very short two month period between RFP submission and the start of the project, June 1.  Leaving little time for things like demonstrations of the system, selection, and then vendor preparation.
  • The roll-out of this significant system to polling place officials and voters with disabilities is apparently scheduled for the November Presidential Election, with no pilot use.
  • We question the accuracy of the number of systems to be acquired, since it is significantly less than the number of polling places in the 2014 Federal Election.
  • Persons with disabilities should also be concerned that their is no system provided today, and none contemplated here, for Election Day Registration (EDR) locations.  One of the many shortcomings allowed by not defining EDR locations as “Polling Places”.

A significant portion of my career was spend evaluating and implementing off-the-shelf and custom commercial software products for a large insurance company, with another portion spent developing and marketing software to large commercial and government organizations.  From what I can determine, this is a rushed, unsound plan.  It is likely to be wasteful, risks chaos in November, and unlikely to satisfy the needs of those with disabilities, taxpayers, or polling place officials.

Clearly, the current system for those with disabilities, the IVS, is unsatisfactory and needs replacement.  At most it serves only those with sight impairment, and hardly serves them. It can take a long time to vote, sometimes hours to complete the process, and fails to provide a secret vote as required by the Connecticut Constitution. Most of those who have tried the system have chosen not to use it again. The system is difficult to set-up, is a challenge for officials, and is dependent on dedicated phone lines being installed in every polling place. It is subject to failure in a power or communications emergency. Yet, we are not aware of any people with disabilities pushing for change.

We long for the previous administration of Susan Bysiewicz, and their creative and effective evaluation of HAVA compliant voting systems in 2006.  Had they not done such an open careful plan we may have ended up with a monstrosity of a voting system. We came close but the careful process provided advocates the time to make the case that the decision should be reversed and the process restarted. Connecticut cut costs in half and implemented optical scanning voting rather than expensive, unauditable touch screens.  Some attributes of that process  should be emulated in procuring a system to replace the IVS (which itself was not subject to a thorough public process):

  • There was much more time for vendors to respond in 2006.  There were open public vendor conferences.
  • Three systems were subject to a large public test in several locations around the state where citizens could try the systems and provide feedback.
  • The UConn Voter Center tested all the machines and provided reports on their technical suitability.
  • Focus groups were created to provide more feedback.  As I recall, focus groups of  Election Officials, Persons with Disabilities, and Independent Technical Experts.
  • UConn political scientists independently analyzed public input and conducted the focus groups.

Replacing the IVS is a somewhat smaller decision than was made in 2006, yet it deserves time for vendors, input from at least the disability community and election officials, along with a careful thoughtful implementation process.  There is no evidence of that in what is apparent in the process as described in the RFP and the press release. Perhaps a sound process would recommend waiting a year of two to possibly obtain a system better than that available today.

 

 

 

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