Absentee ballot contractor for state prompts concerns
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Some county clerks across the state are wary of an effort to change the handling of overseas and military ballots.
The clerks, who run county elections, question Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's decision to hire a private contractor to send out the ballots. The $60,000 contract with Baltimore-based Scytl USA was paid with federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Defense.
Tennant, the state's chief elections officer, said the program is meant to make it easier for overseas West Virginians - particularly members of the military - to vote. The issue is near and dear to Tennant because her husband, state Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, was recently deployed in Afghanistan.
But in interviews this week, several election clerks questioned the arrangement.
In particular, they questioned the need to hire Scytl and the wisdom and legality of having a third party act as middleman between voters and election officials.
The company essentially emails overseas voters on behalf of the state. The process is simple: overseas voters request a ballot from county clerks. The clerks let a computer system know the voter wants a ballot. Then Scytl sends the ballot to the overseas voter.
Tennant questioned the timing of the issue being raised less than a week before Election Day.
Tennant, a Democrat, is on the ballot herself next Tuesday and faces Republican opposition. Several of the clerks interviewed for this article are Democrats. The division over the overseas program points to a rocky relationship between some county clerks and Tennant.
Twenty-one counties - including Kanawha - declined to have Scytl handle their ballots and have opted out of the program.
Tennant said the effort was meant to help members of the military vote and she called the clerks' criticism of the effort "unbelievable."
Clerks' offices said they can send their own emails and have done so in the past.
"We opted out of it immediately because we had the capability to email the ballots ourselves," said Cabell County Clerk Karen Cole, a Democrat.
Cole said she immediately decided to opt out of the effort after members of her staff attended an online training session.
"When they came back and told me what it was, I immediately sent a letter to the secretary of state and said under no circumstance were they to issue any ballot to any Cabell County voter," Cole said.
There have also been reports of a few glitches, including people not getting the company's emails or getting mislabeled ballots, said Jeff Waybright, a Republican clerk in Jackson County.
Jackson County is using the program, and Waybright said the issues have been resolved.
"I haven't heard any more problems in a week or so," he said.
In Mason County, Democratic County Clerk Diana Cromley initially opted into the program but opted out after the county had issues.
"We felt like there would be duplicated ballots or other situations going on, and we didn't want that to be a part of our election process here in Mason County," she said.
The county had worked with Scytl during an earlier pilot program and it was a success.
But that time around was different, Cromley said, because the counties remained in direct contact with voters and used Scytl's system simply to provide voters with ballots. This time the company is acting as a middleman of sorts, and Cromley said it took more steps to answer voters' questions.
"It was just becoming almost ridiculous, and we just couldn't allow that," Cromley said.
Cromley was among clerks who had legal questions about the program. Another was Democratic Marion County Clerk Janice Cosco.
"I had not heard enough about the company, we had not been trained, we had very little communication between the time the secretary selected that system, or that voting system," she said.
She decided that since as county clerk she was responsible, "I didn't want somebody else handling the ballots and doing my duty. I've been doing this 31 years."
Marion County opted out of the program, as did Wood County.
Democrat County Clerk Jamie Six said Wood could handle the overseas ballots itself. About two dozen had been requested by Tuesday afternoon in the county.
"We have the staff that can handle that," Six said. "I'm sure it was done with good intentions, especially maybe a smaller county doesn't have enough staffing, maybe they might need more assistance, but we were able to handle it internally."
Six said voters are used to dealing with the courthouse staff. He said he was concerned voters might think the company's email message was not on the up and up, even though it was officially sanctioned.
Tennant said clerks themselves backed the effort and the state's bid request was reviewed and approved by the head of the county clerks association. But meeting minutes provided by Tennant's office suggest the office ignored some of the clerks' early recommendations.
For instance, at a May 3, 2011 meeting of the Online Voting Pilot Review Committee, the group said the "1st business requirement" for any contract should be that contact with overseas voters be "initiated" by the county clerks.
"The voter should receive communication from a government office rather than a vendor," the meeting minutes provided by Tennant said. "Vendor to voter contact would be limited to 'help' issues."
Tennant said it was county clerks who notified the company to send the overseas ballots. Asked about concerns that a company was handling the ballots, Tennant said Scytl was akin to the U.S. Post Office, which also sends and receives absentee and overseas ballots.
She noted that some of the clerks criticizing her were on the committee that led to Scytl being hired.
"I have never felt more secure in making sure our military voters have easy access, and for someone to question - who helped to develop this, now - and to say they don't know anything about it, say it was sprung on them, say we didn't need this, it's disheartening because these voters deserved better than this," Tennant said. "They deserve better than this."
Other meeting minutes - from the Oct. 19, 2011 meeting - said the group had decided to recommend to Tennant that "ballot delivery be done by the county clerks - email, fax or mail - using a flat PDF for the 2012 election cycle."
PDF is a commonly used type of computer file that displays documents on screens.
The group actually recommended going beyond Scytl's relatively limited role as a middleman and hiring a company so that voters could actually vote online but concluded that was too expensive.
Republican Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick was a member of the committee but said she didn't attend any of the meetings. She said the county wasn't using Scytl because it already allows overseas voters to request ballots by email.