April 12, 2013

Contractor salaries questioned as state moves to paper ballot voting system

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Paper ballot from Colorado by TalAtlas 0n Flickr

Maryland election officials are planning to hire contractors to help with the transition to paper ballots.

By Glynis Kazanjian

Glynis@MarylandReporter.com

State election officials are planning to spend up to $1.2 million to hire just five contractors working for nine months, a high-dollar figure that has shocked key lawmakers and voter advocacy groups watching as the state transitions from touch-screen voting to paper ballots.

The transition, which is scheduled for the 2016 presidential elections, will move the state from computerized voting without a paper trail to optical scan paper ballots. Under the recommendation of State Election Board Administrator Linda Lamone, the state budgeted $1.2 million for the five positions handling the initial transition.

The elections budget calls for the senior project manager position to receive up to $350,000, the deputy project manager $300,000, two business analysts $210,000 each and a technical writer $170,000. The budget figures are estimates, since the elections board has not yet selected contractors.

Committee chairman ‘floored’ by budget proposal

Del. Guy Guzzone (By Howard County Library System on Flickr)

Del. Guy Guzzone (By Howard County Library System on Flickr)

Del. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, chair of the Public Safety and Administration Subcommittee that oversees the state election board’s budget, said he is “absolutely” concerned with the salaries.

“I was floored when I saw that,” Guzzone said. “I do want to say though that those are estimates. Evidently the consulting in this field is high priced because it is so specialized. The bottom line is we want a product that is as close to perfect as it can be. [But] it’s hard to wrap your head around as being reasonable.”

Elections board defends six-figure contractor payments

State Election Board Deputy Administrator Ross Goldstein defended the expenses. In an email, he stated that the state estimated the cost using an existing state agency master contract for consulting and technical services. In that contract, vendors stated how much they will charge for a given service.

“We used an average from different vendors under the master contract to come up with our estimates for each of the labor categories we need,” Goldstein stated.

Goldstein also provided a letter from Maryland Budget and Management Secretary T. Eloise Foster that argued contractors are needed. The March 18 letter was addressed to Mary Kiraly, a voter rights advocate and former Democratic member of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

Foster stated that the elections agency is required by law to plan for the project before a request for proposals (RFP) can be sent out.

“Because of their unique, specialized skills, the average project management professional consultant costs between $200k and $275k per year,” Foster stated. “These professionals, plus the 5% required for the statutorily required oversight by the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) will be the costs that make up the majority of the $1.2 million appropriation.”

Voter advocates question need for contractors, pay amounts

Kiraly said that the proposed salaries are generous.

“I would expect the agency to be overwhelmed with job applicants,” she said.

The salary for Lamone, who leads the elections agency, is lower than all five budgeted contractor positions. Lamone’s salary was $110,122 in 2011.

In addition, Rebecca Wilson, co-director of Save Our Votes, claims that the elections board has already done much of the initial work that will be the responsibility of the contractors. In previous attempts to transition to optical scan voting machines, she said the state had written two versions of RFPs (requests for proposal) — a major job of the new consultants.

“They even got as far as selecting a vendor, so everyone is scratching their heads over how it could possibly take five highly paid consultants nine months to write this RFP yet again,” she said.

Sen. James Robey

Sen. James Robey

Transition to paper ballots will cost at least $40 million

Overall, the implementation of an optical scan paper ballot voting system is expected to cost at least $40 million, according to a consultant’s report done  in 2010 for the Department of Legislative Services.

The ballot change is required under a 2007 state election law that calls for verifiable paper voting records. While the new law was supposed to apply to elections held after Jan. 1, 2010, Goldstein said the new system could not be implemented because funding had not been approved.

Gov. Martin O’Malley approved $2 million in the budget to allow for the implementation of optical scan ballots to begin. The contractors are set to begin initial work July 1.

 Sen. Jim Robey, D-Howard, chair of the subcommittee that oversees the elections board budget on the Senate side, was surprised by the amounts budgeted.

“I need to change careers here,” Robey said, a retired police chief. “Hopefully the RFP [for the contractors] won’t come in that much. On the other hand, when you say we have this much money set aside for a certain slot, if I’m bidding on it, well I know what my bar is on this thing, so I’m not going to come in at $200,000 or $225,000.”

  • What is wrong with the touch screens? Why the change back to paper ballots? Someone needs to answer this questions, we need to know if it is really necessary to spend this money, when we have a working system now. Which I must add was a great cost.

    • John

      It’s not going back to paper ballots. From what I understand, the net effect will be still using electronic voting but creating a paper trail. A purely paper ballot system leads to the problems highlighted by Florida in 2000 with hanging chads, pregnant chads,… A purely electronic system like we have switched to creates the potential for a problem where if there is a glitch with the technology on Election Day it puts the final vote tally into question making people lose confidence if the final vote count is right and there is no paper trail for a recount if there is a suspicion of an electronic glitch. The new system will have the efficiency that comes with electronic voting but it will leave a paper trail so if needed there can be a clean paper recount (no chads…) that everyone can feel confident is the final vote tally. All this stuff is expensive but it will help ensure that everyone’s vote is counted. It’s the price of a democratic vote that people can trust is as accurate as possible. We waste millions on dumber things than democracy in MD.

      • lenlazarick

        As best we know it is paper ballot again and this comment is incorrect

      • lenlazarick

        As best we know it is a return to paper ballot

      • rebecca

        John, I’m curious how you know what kinds of systems the state is considering.

      • rebecca

        Maryland law requires that the system produce a voter–verifiable paper record which “includes:
        (1) a paper ballot prepared by the voter for the purpose of being read by a precinct–based optical scanner;
        (2) a paper ballot prepared by the voter to be mailed to the applicable local board, whether mailed from a domestic or an overseas location; and
        (3) a paper ballot created through the use of a ballot marking device.”

        This means that the voter–verifiable paper record can either be marked by hand or produced by using a ballot-marking device (BMD). BMDs are required so that voters with disabilities will be able to mark paper ballots and verify them before submitting them into the optical scanner for counting. Most voters have no trouble marking a paper ballot by hand. In fact with the increased emphasis on standardized testing in our school systems, most people become familiar with this type of marking system — coloring in “bubbles” — when they are very young. So there is no good reason for the state to invest in massive quantities of ballot marking devices, which are not only expensive to buy but also incredibly expensive to maintain, program, test, repair, store, secure against hacking, keep batteries charged, etc. It would be a way to provide job security for a lot of highly paid technical support staff, so If the state is looking for ways to needlessly squander lots of money, this would do the trick.

        Having all voters use BMDs would also mean that MD would continue to have some of the longest wait times in the country, which are caused by not having enough voting equipment to accommodate the quantity of voters who need to vote
        before or after work. About 2/3 of Americans vote on hand-marked paper ballots counted by optical scanners, and most of them don’t wait in the kind of long lines we do here in MD. In fact LA County, CA — the largest county in the US — has an average wait time of 3 minutes. As long as you have plenty of space for people to mark their ballots, voters can get in and out of the polling places pretty quickly and get on with their day.

        Technology is great for some aspects of voting when it is used appropriately. Technology that enables voters to check-in quickly at the polling place (electronic pollbooks), or that enables voters with disabilities to cast their ballots privately and independently (BMDs), or that speeds up tedious chores such as counting votes (optical scanners) are good examples. But having all voters use BMDs is a solution in search of a problem, and we should carefully weigh ALL of the costs — including voters’ time and the potential risks to election security — before assuming that this would be a wise investment of our hard-earned tax dollars.

    • rebecca

      Touch-screen voting machines, or more accurately called Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) voting units, provide no way to do an independent recount. They have lots of well documented security vulnerabilities that make hacking a very real possibility. And if the machine records the vote incorrectly or fails to record it at all, as has happened in various elections across the country, there is no way to go back and see how the voters intended to vote. A voter-verifiable paper record of each vote provides a way to be sure that votes were counted correctly, so in 2007 our state legislators unanimously voted to require a voter-verifiable paper record of each vote cast. That law has not yet gone into effect largely because State Elections Administrator Linda Lamone opposes the switch and has thrown up every possible roadblock to implementing the law.

      DREs are also extremely expensive to buy, maintain, and deploy. Maryland has already poured close to $200 million into this voting system! And our machines are aging. Most are already past the manufacturer’s 10-year life expectancy (or will be by 2014) so they are starting to have a lot of problems. As they break down they cause increasing shortages of equipment, which just creates longer lines at the polling place. So it is not exactly correct to say that we have a working system now because we have a shrinking pool of usable equipment and an increasing population of voters, which is a sure-fire recipe for long lines at the polls.

  • jwc425

    I got a better idea . . .Just make the changes in PG, Montgomery, Baltimore counties and Baltimore city. Those 4 municipalities determine the politics of the state. The rest of the state doesn’t matter. This should save millions of dollars on the project. Yes, that is sarcasm

  • joe

    Why can’t Democratic liberal left Governor O’Malley remove his hands from Maryland taxpayers pockets instead of supporting his special interest friends?

    Why does Maryland need these consultants when we have a paid state election board?

    Why does Maryland need new paper based voting machines that will be subject to human marking errors (prevented by the touch screen systems), when the current machines can be modified to provide a paper printout receipt/record?

  • rural guy

    Once again the state forced the counties to pay for half of the touch screens used today and they were to be the answer to all. Now they will want the counties to pay again for their screw-up. Some counties had scanners and had to get rid of them, now they want us to get scanners back. If the State wants these things then they should pay the cost of their own mistake. The cost of the consultants is just a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of the new machines.
    How many voter fraud violations did we have with the touch screens?

  • cwals99

    As you see in this article, we fought to make sure Maryland had a paper ballot and won in 2007 and here it is 2013 and we are just getting the funding to do it. That only happened because we shouted loudly and strongly. We are against online voting and registration as well as these are easily hacked/tampered with. This is yet resolved. The article speaks as well to how private contractors drag the price for everything up and the process of bidding and awarding is corrupt. So why does Maryland not have public agencies with enough employees to do the work themselves…..far cheaper? BECAUSE THE PUBLIC SECTOR IS BEING GUTTED AND SENT TO PRIVATE CONTRACTORS COSTING TAXPAYERS MORE IN THE END.