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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, October 22, 2004

State terminates deal for voting machines

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

A state administrative hearings officer yesterday canceled a Texas company's $3.8 million contract to provide electronic voting machines at Hawai'i polling places, but the decision will not disrupt balloting in the Nov. 2 election.

Even though the contract for electronic voting machines was canceled, a state official expressed satisfaction with the machines.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Voters will still be able to choose between a paper ballot and the new Hart InterCivic eSlate electronic voting machine, which is meant to make it easier for disabled voters to cast ballots, but can also be used by others.

The awarding of the contract to Hart was challenged by Election Systems & Software, whose electronic voting system ranked second in the bidding. Sheryl Lee Nagata, State Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs hearings officer, concluded that Hart didn't have the required three years of experience with electronic voting systems at the time the contract was issued.

Hart InterCivic director of corporate communications Michelle Shafer, reached last night at the firm's headquarters in Austin, Texas, called the ES&S challenge "an example of sour grapes by a vendor who lost a procurement fair and square."

The contract will remain in effect until after the election, but what happens then is not clear. The administrative ruling could be appealed, and even if it's not, state officials have various options, including issuing a new request for proposals or selecting the second-place bidder in the original bidding.

"The state has a number of things they can do. We'll work with them to reach a fair resolution," said Corianne W. Lau of the law firm Alston, Hunt, Floyd & Ing, who represented Election Systems & Software. ES&S has the contract to provide the state's paper ballot voting system.

An electronic voting option is required by the federal government's Help America Vote Act of 2002, but is under challenge in Hawai'i and across the country. A key complaint is that it doesn't provide a reliable way to audit the results to check whether the tallies accurately reflect the votes cast.

Safe Vote Hawai'i, a coalition that decries the lack of a paper trail with the Hart voting machines, has urged voters to boycott the machines. But state elections officials say repeated tests convinced them the equipment operates as billed. Also, nearly a quarter of those voting early are using the machines.

Three firms, Hart, ES&S and Avante, submitted bids to provide electronic voting. An evaluation committee recommended Hart, and the state procurement office awarded the contract to Hart. ES&S challenged the contract on a number of issues, with Nagata ultimately ruling on a technicality.

Hart, which Nagata said didn't have the required three years of experience, provided electronic voting services in elections in several states in 2001, 2002 and 2003. The elections office concluded that three election cycles met the terms of the contract specifications, said state elections chief Dwayne Yoshina.

But competitor ES&S argued that Hart's first election was in Texas in November 2001— less than three calendar years before the contract was issued in August.

It's a fine point, but Nagata used it to order that Hart's contract, which was to run to 2006, be terminated Dec. 31 and that a two-year contract extension option be deleted.

Yoshina said elections officials have been satisfied with the voting machines.

"We have learned a heck of a lot about this system. Everybody who's used it loves it," he said.

Hart's Shafer said its eSlate electronic systems have been tested in by elections officials in several states since 2000.

She said the company is one of the most experienced in the country, providing traditional election services since 1912.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.