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County mulls purchase of new vote tabulators for elections

by LYNNETTE HINTZE
Daily Inter Lake | September 13, 2021 12:00 AM

The Flathead County commissioners on Tuesday will further consider the purchase of new vote tabulators and a hardened laptop system for use in elections, after tabling the matter Aug. 26.

The commissioners were awaiting a letter from the Montana Secretary of State’s Office regarding the DS200 tabulators the county plans to purchase, and have since received the letter that assures the equipment does not include a connection of the voting device to the internet.

“Before being certified in Montana, all currently approved voting systems had already received federal accreditation and testing by the Election Assistance Commission,” Dana Corson, elections director for the Montana Secretary of State, wrote in an email to the commissioners and county Clerk and Recorder Debbie Pierson. “To be clear, in Montana, a system will not be approved, certified, or maintain prior authorization/certification if it is unprotected from fraudulent tampering in any form. Montana has not certified modeming, cellular, or networking capabilities for any voting system in this state.”

The commissioners are now poised to discuss and vote on the purchase orders at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Pierson said the new tabulators will replace machines that are 16 years old.

“When machines age there is greater concern, so these DS200s are an upgrade,” Pierson told the commissioners on Aug. 26. “We’re only allowed by law to purchase tabulation and marking equipment and software that is certified. We purchase what is available for us to purchase. I know modems are a concern, and none of the equipment requested includes modems.”

The hardened laptop system, which was also tabled, is what the county uses for results, Pierson explained. Results are loaded to the hardened system, through the software program, then are transferred again to another computer that can upload results to the Secretary of State’s Office.

“It serves one purpose — internal election communication,” Pierson added.

The commissioners on Aug. 26 did approve the purchase of a ballot-on-demand system that allows election officials to create actual ballots if the county runs short during an election. In the past, photocopies have been made of ballots.

ABOUT 15 people spoke in opposition of the tabulators and hardened laptop purchase orders during the 15-minute public comment period allotted by the commissioners on Aug. 26. Many questioned the integrity of the tabulators and asked the commissioners to delay the purchases to more thoroughly review the equipment.

Several county residents urged the commissioners to consider hand-counting ballots, as opposed to feeding paper ballots through a machine. Some voiced concerns about the potential for the tabulators to be connected to the internet and the potential for fraud.

Matt Reynolds, director of the county’s Information Technology Department, said he was asked to look into the DS200 tabulators, specifically for the modem question.

“There are no modems on the DS200 tabulators,”Reynolds told the commissioners. “Without these different components you can’t make this outside connection. The supply chain for these tabulators is strict and tight, with the highest level of security.”

County Elections Manager Monica Eisenzimer also assured the commissioners the tabulators used at polling places are “never online or attached to anything on the internet.” In 2008 Montana clerk and recorders and election administrators developed a post-election audit process, she said, in which every county using a tabulation machine must be part of a post-election audit.

“No one’s ever found a modem or ever found a discrepancy,” Eisenzimer said. “We’ve never had an issue. If there is an issue it’s humans counting ballots and separating them incorrectly … and we’ve found the issue and resolved it.”

Both Eisenzimer and Pierson urged those in attendance at the commissioner proceedings to be a part of the election process.

“There are all kinds of opportunities where they (the public) can see the layers and layers of checks and balances,” Pierson said.

Bryan Hoffman, vice president of corporate sales at Election Systems & Software (ES&S) of St. Cloud, Minnesota, the company that sells the tabulators to the county and provides support services, further reiterated “we do not put modems into equipment we deliver into Montana.”

The county Election Department has posted a fact sheet about the DS200 tabulators on its website to help inform voters.

“As misinformation is distributed throughout social media applications and mainstream media outlets, it is important that Flathead County citizens trust that the machines we use to tabulate our ballots are secure,” the Election Department stated.

The letter from the Secretary of State’s Office pointed out that “election officials are strictly required to follow the operational procedures set forth by law, rules, or guidance set forth by the Secretary of State.

“The set up and operational use of Montana voting systems have a precise process that must be followed,” Corson noted. “The process DOES NOT include connection of the voting device to the internet.”

Commissioner Pam Holmquist said she has worked elections for many years, and reiterated what election officials said, that “there are a lot of checks and balances in place.

“There’s a lot that we do that we make sure we have a secure election,” Holmquist said.

News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.