It's being pitched as the latest voting reform elixir, widely adopted by counties across the country, but a call for proposals to create and operate a so-called electronic voting book system for the San Diego County Registrar of Voters comes amidst rising questions about costs, reliability, and security against Russian hackers.
"The Electronic Poll Book system eliminates manual voter lookup, promoting shorter check-in queues with better and immediate alerts for staff or voter guidance," says the county's June 26 request for proposals, kicking off a solicitation for services from would-be vendors set to close July 25.
"The Electronic Poll Book system will decrease the time it takes to manually complete the election canvass while using fewer resources," per the document. "As the voter roster increases, the Electronic Poll Book system shall scale up. This allows the County to meet a growing base without impacting the voting experience."
But as with all such outsourcing, the devil is in the details, heavily dependent on the good faith and integrity of vendors, and experiences elsewhere have flashed repeated warnings about the cutting-edge systems.
Among the flurry of concerns have been reports that in November 2016 Russian agents may have tried to hack Durham County North Carolina poll books provided by Florida-based voting technology company VR Systems
“It would be great to know what vulnerabilities exist that we need to be preventing,” Josh Lawson, former general counsel for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, told the Washington Post earlier this month.
“It’d be nice to know how [poll books] can be gotten to, and if they’re gotten to, what that can look like.”
Word of the potential hacking came in the April report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III regarding alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In a June 16 editorial, the Post asserted that the Department of Homeland Security has been slow to respond to the charges.
"The company from which Durham County got its polling book software, VR Systems, claims that it did not hear from DHS until September 2017, months after a news report revealed that the Russians had targeted an election services firm matching its description, and that, when it did hear, word came in the form of a strange 2 a.m. phone call," said the paper.
"Following the report, North Carolina officials investigated Durham County’s polling book laptops but concluded they needed technical help. The state asked DHS to conduct a forensic examination. But Homeland Security has only just agreed to do so — a year and a half after North Carolina requested help."
The festering controversy has caused North Carolina election officials to withhold certification of voting technology contractors until the firms disclose the composition of their ownership, the Associated Press reported June 14.
Mueller's finding, "essentially says everybody should be concerned about this and everybody should be looking harder at a lot of these things to make sure we're protected as best we can be," Robert Cordle, head of the North Carolina state elections board, told the wire service. "It's just a matter of doing our due diligence now to make sure there are no problems."
Noted the account, "Maryland officials learned last year that a company maintaining their election infrastructure did not disclose that it was being financed for more than two years by a venture fund whose largest investor is a Russian oligarch."
San Diego county's latest call for poll book proposals is part of a radical high-tech makeover revealed here in February intended to fix San Diego's county glitch-prone and plodding vote-counting effort.
After delayed results of November's 2018 election, Registrar of Voters Michael Vu explained to Washington's The Hill that burgeoning ballots were swamping the legacy system and responsible for making San Diego's vote count the slowest of the state's 58 counties.
"In San Diego County, there are 594 different ballot combinations," said The Hill in a November 10 report headlined, "Why California Counts its Ballots so Slowly."
"The longest, a multi-card ballot, is four and a half feet long when laid out end to end. When a voter goes to the wrong precinct or casts a provisional ballot, the county determines which races that voter is eligible to vote on and counts those votes, rather than throwing out the entire ballot."
No price estimates for the county's new system are included in the vendor solicitation, but costs and technical complications could be considerable, judging by the requirements listed.
"The County is seeking an Electronic Poll Book vendor-hosted software as a solution (SaaS), with associated hardware, that is secure, cost-effective, utilizes modern technology, and is fully compatible in any voting model compliant with California law." notes the document.