With Major Contracts Ahead of 2020, Voting Machine Industry Comes Under Scrutiny Close ties between vendors and election officials are getting extra attention as states plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new voting machines by next year.

Trips To Vegas And Chocolate-Covered Pretzels: Election Vendors Come Under Scrutiny

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Election officials are expecting to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new voting equipment before next year's elections. This is the biggest wave of purchases in over a decade. And it comes at a time of increased concern about election security. It also comes amid questions about the close relationship between voting machine vendors and the officials who are buying their equipment. And to talk about this, I'm joined by NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers the issue.

Hi there, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Let me start with a basic question. Why now are we seeing so many voting machines being purchased?

FESSLER: Well, there are two reasons. First, a lot of the existing equipment that state and local election officials now use was purchased after the 2000 elections. And it's just getting old. It needs to be replaced. The second reason is security. Especially in light of concerns about Russian hacking attempts, there's this nationwide push to replace all paperless voting machines, which are still used in about a dozen states, with ones that produce paper ballots. These paper ballots can always be counted to make sure that the results are accurate in case there are any concerns. So we are seeing entire states like Georgia, South Carolina and Delaware getting all new equipment. And some big states like California, Pennsylvania and Ohio are also buying new machines.

GREENE: OK. So why are people raising alarm bells about how these companies - or which companies are selling these machines?

FESSLER: It's a really, really small industry. Three vendors dominate the market. We have Election Systems & Software known as ES&S, then Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic. And it's a really small community. The vendors, the election officials, they all know each other. They've been working together for years. They go to conferences together. Sometimes, the vendors sponsor the conferences. And the companies also hire former election officials to work for them. There was a big controversy last year when it was revealed that a number of election officials were serving on an ES&S customer advisory board.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

FESSLER: The purpose was to discuss voting trends and to, you know, share information. But it also meant that ES&S was paying thousands of dollars for some of these officials to travel to cities such as Las Vegas for meetings. And that raised some eyebrows, you know, especially at a time when states are spending all this money to buy new equipment.

GREENE: I mean, you want to assume that election officials are making decisions based on what's best for voters and for election security in the country. Is there any evidence that these ties have had some sort of negative influence over these decisions?

FESSLER: I haven't seen any evidence of, like, a quid pro quo. But I do think it's about appearances. And we're at a time when officials are trying to instill public confidence to make people feel more comfortable in the integrity of our elections, that there's nothing nefarious going on. But we have cases where recently, Pennsylvania's auditor general asked all the county election officials in the state if they'd accepted gifts from vendors, and 18 said that they had. These gifts ranged from, you know, trips paid to Las Vegas but also to things like, you know, boxes of chocolate-covered pretzels. But the auditor general said even small gifts, quote, "smacks of impropriety." And this has become a really, really big issue in Georgia, where reporter Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE has been covering the debate over what new voting machines the state should buy.

WILL WESLEY: Once they sign in, they're issued an activation card. The voter would insert that in the machine.

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Will Wesley and I are standing in a crowded room near the Georgia Statehouse, looking at a table covered with touchscreen computers and some printers. Wesley is with the company ES&S. And he and some reps from other companies are here to show off voting equipment. Wesley chooses his favorite candidates by tapping one of ES&S's touch screens.

WESLEY: Now I'm going to go ahead and mark my card.

KAUFFMAN: The printer spits out a paper ballot with his selections he calls a card. Wesley picks up the piece of paper that just printed, looks at it and slides it into a scanner.

WESLEY: Doesn't matter - upside-down, backwards. It scans it. It takes approximately two to three seconds for it to scan. Thank you for voting. Your ballot's been counted. And it drops down into the ballot box.

KAUFFMAN: Earlier this year around the time of this demonstration, the state legislature was in session. And after the contested 2018 midterms in Georgia, election policy debates got especially heated. Republicans were pushing to change the law so the state would buy touch-screen voting machines, the kind ES&S and other companies are competing to sell the state. Republicans say the machines eliminate confusion over who voters intended to cast their ballot for. And they point out that election officials want the machines. But Democrats argued the voting machines are vulnerable to hacks and malfunction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELENA PARENT: Come on. This is a joke.

KAUFFMAN: That's Democratic state senator Elena Parent. Parent and other Democrats unsuccessfully argued for hand-marked paper ballots instead of the machines. During debate in the legislature, they brought up ES&S again and again, alleging corruption between the company and GOP officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARENT: I've been given absolutely no good reason why we should buy these things. There's not one good reason. So therefore, it just reeks of corruption that we're prioritizing vendors over voters.

KAUFFMAN: There's no evidence of any rule-breaking. But there is a long list of ES&S staff and contractors with relationships to Georgia officials. Among them, the company's VP of government relations used to be the director of elections in the secretary of state's office. And a former ES&S lobbyist is the deputy chief of staff to Gov. Brian Kemp. Jeb Cameron is the regional sales manager in Georgia for ES&S, and he also used to work for the state.

JEB CAMERON: Of course we've built relationships in the state. I would say we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't build those close relationships.

KAUFFMAN: Georgia is set to buy new voting machines ahead of 2020. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office will award the contract. Here he is at a press conference earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: I want to make sure that Georgians get the best possible value for what we're going to buy that's going to last us for the next 10 to 12 years.

KAUFFMAN: Raffensperger himself has few connections to ES&S, but he ran on the same GOP ticket as Gov. Brian Kemp, who does. I wanted to ask Raffensperger how he can guarantee this election process will be fair, but his staff didn't make him available for an interview or answer questions about how it's picking the new machines.

GREENE: Johnny Kauffman there giving us a window into this close relationship between election officials and these companies in the state of Georgia. NPR's Pam Fessler - still with me - she covers this around the country. Pam, what can be done to assure voters in the time that election security is such a big issue - you know, reassuring them that officials are making the best decisions here when it comes to buying equipment?

FESSLER: I think it's all about transparency. Some members of Congress have called for more federal oversight of vendors. But so far, those proposals haven't gone anywhere. State and local governments, which run elections, they don't want the federal government telling them what to do. But I do think, because there's so much concern about election security, that these deals are going to get a lot more public scrutiny in the coming year. And the vendors and the election officials are well aware of that. For its part, ES&S says it's no longer going to have those advisory board meetings planned because they don't want to put election officials in a compromising position.

GREENE: I see - already taking some steps. All right, NPR's Pam Fessler.

Pam, we appreciate it.

FESSLER: Thanks.

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