County elections workers say new elections management system needs work, ask for delay

Legislative committee to meet Dec. 16 on project

By: - November 8, 2021 6:53 pm

Your Vote Counts badge (Photo illustration via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 2.0).

Citing “red flags” identified in a rollout, county election leaders are asking the Montana Secretary of State to make sure glitches with a new elections management system are ironed out and for a chance to fully test it — with successful results — before firing it up across the state.

“It still has bug after bug after bug,” said Rina Moore, clerk and recorder in Cascade County. “And as an elections administrator that actually runs the elections, the last thing I need to do is to explain to a voter next year, ‘Oops, there was a bug in the election system. Sorry you got issued two ballots.’”

Last week, Moore and Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg asked the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs interim legislative committee for help ensuring a new voter registration and elections system, electMT, is fully vetted and functioning before it goes live. County elections staff working on the project have said they believe the new system will be superior to the old one, Montana Votes, once it’s ready, but they don’t believe that’s possible by January 2022.

“At some point, it’s going to be a fabulous program, but right now, we want to do everything we can to not only work with the Secretary of State’s Office, but not be forced to use a program that we have no faith in, and we don’t have faith in this system right now because we haven’t been able to test it,” Moore said.

At the committee meeting Thursday and in correspondence with the Secretary of State, elections workers said the current timeline is too ambitious to ensure they can have confidence in using the new system next year, yet candidates can start filing for office in January. According to emails from a county elections supervisor who is part of a county development team that’s helping to implement the new system, the goal to launch electMT by January 2022 should be postponed until summer 2023 in order to ensure trustworthy elections.

“We appreciate the inclusion of county election professionals to work through the details of such a conversion, and we have liked much of what we have seen in terms of functionality; however, the slated launch in January 2022 could damage election integrity for the reasons just mentioned,” said an Oct. 15 letter from 11 county development team members, including elections supervisor Audrey McCue of Lewis and Clark County, citing user errors that could result in public data errors and undermine confidence in elections.

The letter was addressed to Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen. Monday, the Secretary of State’s Office could not be reached for comment via an email and voicemail for communications director Richie Melby. 

Thursday, Moore and Plettenberg raised the issue with the interim legislative committee, and Monday, McCue said in an email to the committee that the system holds promise, but the timeline is overly ambitious. The development team working on the rollout is comprised of elections staff from 11 counties in Montana.

“​​It was clear from the earliest sprints (discrete project milestones) that the vendor was not providing enough resources, and that was measured,” McCue said in the letter. “When we test each sprint, the requirements for that sprint pass or fail. Because of the aggressive timeline, the state very wisely stated each sprint would need a 90 percent passing rate. The developer failed to meet that mark.”

At the meeting, Moore said the test results had barely hit 70 percent of the criteria written into the program so it would function under Montana law. She said elections workers have sent numerous fixes to developers, but delays precluded running a parallel test election in November on the old and new system at the same time to ensure the results are alike.

Now, she said the plan is to hold a trial run during three days in December. Moore said the compressed timeline doesn’t reflect a true election, and county workers would like the ability to run through every feature in a realistic fashion, from printing labels to receiving ballots to logging names on petitions, before the old system is shelved.

She also said elections in 2022 complicate the matter because there’s a period when ballots for school elections are going out at the same time they’re being issued for the federal primary — all on a huge system that won’t have been fully vetted.

“We will do the best that we can to test. But this program is not ready,” Moore said.

Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, said Monday the committee just learned of the challenge during public comment at its meeting last week, so it was still investigating whether it had legislative authority to take any action. However, she said the item would be on the committee’s Dec. 16 agenda, which would be after the three-day trial run in Helena.

“We certainly will be listening,” said Ellis, committee chair. “All of us want elections to be fair and secure, and I think that includes everybody on the SAVA (State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs) Committee as well as county elections administrators for sure, and the Secretary of State’s Office. So I’m just hoping this all works itself out.”

She said one issue is that other state agencies have gone over budget on many items, so there’s sensitivity around any change that might add cost. However, she also said she believes everyone wants the public to have confidence in election results.

“Everybody is pulling in the same direction. I’m just not sure everybody has the same idea on how to get there,” Ellis said.

The contract for a new system started under former Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, and it’s been under development for a while, Ellis said. She said the current system is 15 years old, and software obviously has improved “considerably” since then.

“There’s some great features of this new electMT system,” Ellis said. Specifically, she said the new system will allow people to track whether their ballots arrived in a municipal election, for example, whereas the old system tracked only statewide and federal elections ballots.

The argument is strong that a full parallel test during an actual election would help a lot of people feel at ease, Ellis said. She said she believes part of the tension is the Secretary of State’s Office believes the fixes can be made along the way, since there isn’t an election in January, but the county development team doesn’t want the old system to be discarded and replaced with the new one until the new one is running smoothly.

Either way, she said everyone is trying to be as open as they can to design a test in December that can give people confidence the new system is secure and safe.

“We need this system to work, right?” she said. “ And we don’t want people yelling at the Secretary of State’s Office. We don’t want them yelling at the county administrators. We want election results to come out and people to have confidence in them.”

This story has been updated to note the signers to the Oct. 15 letter included all members of the county development team.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.