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Testing underway on new elections management system

by By KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| December 10, 2021 11:02 AM

Testing is underway on a new elections management system for Montana that county elections leaders warned last month was still full of bugs and didn’t appear ready for a target January 2022 start.

Thursday, one day after testing began, elections administrator Bradley Seaman of Missoula County said the new system, electMT, had passed some tests but failed others. He said the process would continue through the State Administration and Veterans Affairs interim committee meeting Thursday, Dec. 16.

“Right now, we don’t have enough data to make a good call,” said Seaman, one of 11 members of a county development team working to implement the new system.

At the meeting next week, legislators are slated to hear an update on the transition from the current system, MT Votes; Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, members of her elections team, and two elections administrators, Regina Plettenberg of Ravalli County and Rina Moore of Cascade County, are on the agenda.

At last month’s committee meeting, Moore and Plettenberg asked lawmakers for help making sure electMT was fully vetted before it goes live. Moore told the committee the new system still had “bug after bug after bug,” and she didn’t want to have to explain unnecessary mishaps to the public.

ELECTIONS WORKERS have said they believe the new system will be superior to the old one, but the timeline for ensuring all the glitches are fixed was too ambitious, and summer 2023 was a more realistic target. One rationale is that moving the target date would allow time for the system to be retested to be sure fixes identified as needed in the current testing work.

This week, Plettenberg said she thought elections workers would have a good idea of how the system was working by next Wednesday, the day before the committee hears an update. She said it was too early this week in the vetting process to know if the glitches had been ironed out, but she was taking the time to evaluate results.

“I’m really trying to give the system a chance,” Plettenberg said.

A timeline in a series of correspondence about the project listed Dec. 20 as the date a “go, no go” decision would be made. Secretary of State communications director Richie Melby did not respond Thursday to an email asking how the decision would be made, and he has not responded to multiple requests via email and voicemail last month and Thursday for a copy of the state’s contract for the new system. (An email from a county development team member had said it was clear early on that “the vendor was not providing enough resources” to keep the project moving forward at an acceptable pace.)

Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, said she hopes the results of the tests are definitive. As recently as last week, she said she was still hearing about problems. For example, one elections worker wanted to check the new system for information about her county, but the only option in the dropdown menu of counties was Flathead County.

ELLIS, CHAIR of the interim committee, said another problem was the elections worker could not run the reports she would need to present county commissioners with a ballot count verification against a tabulator count. And if she can’t run that report, she is hamstrung in assuring commissioners the vote is accurate.

“If they can’t run the reports they’re used to, that puts them in the dark,” Ellis said. “And the last thing we need is for voters in this state to have less confidence that elections are accurate and secure.”

Some of the problems are simple to fix, but Ellis said if the list of small problems is lengthy, a delay in the transition still might be necessary: “I’m agnostic on whether we go forward or we don’t. I just want to make sure it’s ready when we do move forward.”

Elections administrator Seaman said Thursday it’s too soon to tell if the number of issues will be too many to address by January, but data was coming in quickly. He also said Secretary of State Jacobsen had been able to mitigate a lot of the areas of concerns that elections workers had raised in the past.

Going forward, he said the team would be evaluating if critical problems remained, such as the system issuing duplicate ballots or not reporting correctly.

“That’s the data that we don’t have just yet,” he said.

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