Believe it not, elections in the U.S. are outsourced to for-profit companies. That’s a statement I made when I spoke about election technology and election integrity at a DHS conference on technology and homeland security. I was asked what exactly I meant, and could give a specific example. I did, and explained the varying degrees of outsourcing. But I found an example in the recent election that is such a good example  that I can’t resist sharing it.

In Craven County, North Carolina, election officials were having trouble completing the official vote count process because a machine recount of mail-in ballots seemed to be off by over 3000 votes. It turns out that the reason was that the ballot scanner/counter machines were incorrectly programmed and didn’t recognize some ballots. This is not exactly uncommon because of the complexity of the work that the voting systems require election officials to do. Now here is the scary part about the outsourcing, and I quote from an article from the North Carolina Sun-Journal:

"Coding is done by voting machine and software manufacturer Electronic Systems and Software. It is distributed locally by Print Elect of New Bern and three company technicians also assisted in the data recovery. They jury-rigged an M-650 rapid counter with a paper clip to help speed up the absentee ballot counting process. … their software’s working compatibility with the software was not adequately tested … [for 4 precincts] "Geo-codes" were not entered correctly and produced reporting problems."

That’s what I call outsourcing. The private company ES&S sold the voting system to Craven County, and programs the systems for the elections, and operates parts of the system for creating vote totals. Election officials are involved too, and thank goodness! The voting system technology is so complex that even the vendors’ employees make mistakes. In fact, but for the vigilance of the election officials, such mistakes result in votes not being counted. And even worse, part of the recovery from the mistakes involved "jury-rigging" the counting machines in a way that one can only hope didn’t create more accurate results.

The only consolation in this sad tale is that none of the election’s contests were close, so no one thought that they saw a pattern in the votes that were almost lost, and wondered whether the coding accident was too convenient for suppressing vote in 4 precincts known to have a particular voting history and pattern. I’m sure that the ES&S employees were diligent and well-meaning, but the that’s not the point — it’s the appearance that a private company’s staff has the power to control and intentionally skew election results.

That appearance is not what we need for confidence in elections. Private for-profit companies might be helping run these outsourced elections, but in doing so they are not helping re-build the tattered confidence in our election system.

— EJS