Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Jacobsen says new election system ‘not ready’

by ALEX SAKARIASSEN Montana Free Press
| December 24, 2021 7:00 AM

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen announced Monday that the state will hold off on its transition to a new statewide election management system, indicating in a statement that the system has not met all the criteria required for a previously slated January launch.

The decision, made in consultation with a third-party vendor and a group of county election administrators, resolves for now a concern voiced by local election officials about the integrity of the upcoming 2022 elections.

“If the established criteria had been met, the system would have been implemented,” Jacobsen, a Republican, said in her statement. “Montana will not launch an election management system that isn’t ready, and it’s not ready.”

Monday’s announcement came on the heels of a detailed discussion last Thursday, when Jacobsen and her staff updated the Legislature’s State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs (SAVA) Committee on the transition to a new election system, which is called ElectMT. During that meeting, SOS Elections and Voter-Services Manager Stuart Fuller, who is heading the project, explained that in end-to-end testing of ElectMT this month, “some of the system simply didn’t pass.” Fuller added that some individual functions that didn’t pass testing weren’t critical to the decision about whether to launch ElectMT, “but there are several that are critical for go-live.”

The state’s current election system, Montana Votes, was first launched statewide during the 2006 general election after nearly four years of development and testing. County election officials use it for a wide array of voter services, from registering voters and updating voter information to distributing and processing ballots, and will continue to do so as ElectMT development moves forward.

Former Secretary of State Corey Stapleton announced the transition to a new system in 2019 and awarded a no-bid contract to the South Dakota firm BPro to take on the project. Stapleton intended to launch the new system in time for the 2020 election, but county officials pushed back, fearing a rushed implementation would create widespread problems during a high turnout election year. Stapleton ultimately decided to delay implementation, presenting 2021 as a more realistic goal.

“It does not appear to me that we will be able to implement a new voter registration system this year,” Stapleton wrote in a letter announcing the delay. “But we can still make considerable progress toward the system if we stay focused and intentional in our work.”

Jacobsen’s office and BPro, which was acquired by the St. Louis-based election technology firm KNOWiNK last February, picked the project back up in 2021. In collaboration with a development team of 11 county election officials from across the state, developers put portions of the new system through a series of tests throughout the year. The plan also called for a parallel test of ElectMT alongside the Montana Votes system in select municipal elections this fall, but the new system wasn’t ready in time. Election officials in several counties maintain that the ability to run such a test and compare the results generated by the two systems is a crucial step in the transition.

A majority of the funding for the project is slated to come from federal grants made available for election security upgrades through the Help America Vote Act. According to data from Montana’s Legislative Finance Committee, the original amount budgeted for ElectMT was $3.5 million, with roughly $1.7 million expended to date. Jacobsen’s office did not answer questions emailed by Montana Free Press last month regarding details of the BPro/KNOWiNK contract, and a request for a copy of the contract has not yet been fulfilled. Rep. Jessica Karjala (D-Billings) asked Jacobsen and her staff several times last week if the SAVA Committee could see a copy of the contract. Committee Chair Sen. Janet Ellis (D-Helena) said she’d also requested a copy of the contract.

“Everything has been completely transparent from the beginning up until this point,” Jacobsen said, noting that the project had been vetted by the Legislature and the governor’s office through the budgeting process. “All of that information is readily available.”

In a message to MTFP Monday, Karjala reiterated her request that Jacobsen’s office provide a copy of the contract to committee members and to the press. She also welcomed Jacobsen’s decision to not implement ElectMT in January.

“This is good news,” Karjala wrote. “We should all thank the elections administrators for their effort to keep Montana’s elections safe and secure and for Secretary of State Jacobsen for responding to their concerns.”

Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman told MTFP Monday that he is “relieved” the various parties involved in the transition have come to a “common understanding.” Since county election administrators expressed their concerns in early November, Seaman said, the SOS office, system developers and county election officials have worked together diligently to determine whether ElectMT was ready for implementation. Seaman, who represented the county development team in Monday’s readiness meeting, added that this month’s eight days of end-to-end testing offered an opportunity for him and other local election officers to show exactly what portions of the system they felt weren’t yet meeting expectations.

“We love this database,” Seaman said. “We just want to smooth out the parts that weren’t working right and fully test it so that we’re confident in it going into the next election cycle.”

Seaman said it will fall to the SOS office and BPro to determine how the project proceeds from here. But he noted that the prospect of parallel testing in 2022 elections was raised in Monday’s meeting, and while election administrators are facing a busy election cycle, Seaman said he and others will continue providing resources to ensure that “we’ve done everything we can to help support this process.”