State lags on HAVA spending

Kathy Scheele, director of elections, sits in her office in Montpelier. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Kathy Scheele, director of elections, sits in her office in Montpelier. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Usually, the complaint from state agencies is that they don’t have enough money. But in some cases they may have too much.

As of September 2011, the Secretary of State’s office held about $13 million in federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds, which must be directed broadly toward improving Vermont’s federal elections.

First passed in October 2002, HAVA demanded an overhaul of elections law and systems nationwide, partly in reaction to the controversial presidential election in 2000, where ballot problems in some states led to the elimination of 2 million votes, according to an analysis by National Geographic.

Remarkably, Vermont spent just 4.77 percent of one of two HAVA funds between 2002 and 2010, or $664,941 – less than a third of the $2.3 million interest earned on that fund over the same period, according to a report published by the federal Elections Assistance Commission.

No other state has spent less than 20 percent of its funds in the same timeframe; 37 states have spent 70 percent or more of their HAVA money.

Secretary of State Jim Condos. VTD file photo/Josh Larkin

Secretary of State Jim Condos. VTD file photo/Josh Larkin

Former and current senior elections officials in Vermont doggedly defend their record and dismiss criticisms about the $13 million in unspent HAVA funds.

The state team claims that HAVA expenditures have been prudent; critics say the money is being hoarded unwisely, and that some past spending has been dubious.

Asked why Vermont has kept such a sizable HAVA balance, Secretary of State Jim Condos replied sharply: “Because we didn’t spend it foolishly.” In her office at the Secretary of State’s building, Kathy Scheele, director of Vermont elections for over a decade, also makes no apologies for the office’s tight hold on the HAVA purse strings.

But former state auditor Randy Brock noted that even after major HAVA projects like a $600,000 voter database, there was “a huge amount of money left to do other things, almost in perpetuity to deal with other voter issues. Frankly, I found that a little puzzling.”

Scheele says ideally, the HAVA funds could last “forever” – and she isn’t joking. HAVA funds, confirmed an EAC spokesman, do not expire.

“Why would we want to spend it?”

Former Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, who oversaw HAVA expenditures in her 13-year tenure up to 2010, defended the office’s spending strategy as “conservative.” She said Vermont “got the job done well and didn’t scrimp.”

Markowitz also argued that the sizable remaining balance shields towns from the costs of complying with any future federal regulations which HAVA may impose.

“Why would we want to spend it?” Markowitz asked. “Let’s save it for when there’s a new mandate, for new technology. Won’t it be great that we have money then, so that we don’t burden local taxpayers?”

But some critics say that Vermont’s elections infrastructure is not up to par compared to other states. Former deputy state auditor George Thabault wants to see an online voter registration lookup, so voters can clarify where they’re registered to vote, alongside a unified system among town clerks for tracking voting history, which he says is useful information for political candidates.

“It seems like there’s millions and millions of dollars waiting to be invested in improving access to Vermont’s voting,” said Thabault, suggesting that an online lookup, which only Vermont and California do not have, is a sorely needed upgrade to the state’s system. “I hope it happens, quickly.”

Scheele explained that the $6.68 million spent over the past decade went toward voting equipment, a statewide voter database, improving voting accessibility for disabled voters, and the training of election administrators.

“It’s too bad a lot of other states spent too much of it, too quickly,” said Scheele.

Vermont's statewide voter database has been criticized by the state auditor, but vigorously defended by state elections officials. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Vermont’s statewide voter database has been criticized by the former state auditor Randy Brock, but vigorously defended by state elections officials. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

According to federal records, the government has awarded Vermont at least $18 million in HAVA funds since 2002: The state has received $16.6 million, but declined to claim the remaining $1.4 million in recent years, according to Scheele. (Federal records show that Vermont hasn’t claimed HAVA funds due to the state since 2008.)

Larger states, like California, have received about $348.9 million in HAVA funding from 2002 to 2010, spending as much as $287 million on their elections systems in the same period.

Former Progressive state legislator and election policy analyst Terry Bouricius argues that there should be more targeted audits of high-profile races, to prevent voting fraud. Although he cautiously agrees with the Secretary of State’s conservative HAVA spending, Bouricius mused, “There may be wonderful things to spend the money on.”

Still others, like Milton town clerk John Cushing, hope that the statewide voter database first created in 2006 could be significantly improved. “If we have a checklist that’s substandard, then I guess, I hate to say it, that means our electoral process must be substandard as well,” said Cushing, who has experienced problems operating the database.

It remains unclear if Vermont could make better use of the federal funds resting in the Secretary of State’s office, which has drawn little attention from legislators. Though the funds must partly go towards specific requirements outlined in federal statutes, much of the money can also be spent for the broad goal of “improving the administration of federal elections,” which leaves room for slightly more creativity, said Scheele.

An AccuVote ballot counting machine, worth about $6500, in the Secretary of State's Montpelier office. Vermont owns 185 such machines. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

An AccuVote ballot counting machine, worth about $6,500, in the Secretary of State’s Montpelier office. Vermont owns 185 such machines, some of which were bought with the HAVA funds. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Several sources for this story said they saw no major differences between current Secretary of State Condos and predecessor Markowitz on their strategies for handling HAVA funds.

HAVA’s unexamined past in Vermont

The $6 million paper trail left behind by HAVA expenditure to date hasn’t been well examined. Federal officials have not audited the state’s use of the funds, and the state auditor has only examined one program — the voter checklist project — paid for with the funds.

The federal Elections Assistance Commission, the agency that distributes and oversees HAVA funding nationally, ranked Vermont high on the list of states likely to be audited in 2006, according to the nonprofit Election Center. Vermont has never been audited by the EAC’s Inspector General.

Still, “audits go after those who spend a lot of money rather than less,” explained Curtis Crider, the Election Assistance Commission’s inspector general. Vermont’s sparse spending alone wouldn’t raise a red flag in absence of further information, said Curtis, who clarified that Vermont is not scheduled for an audit this year.

Scheele doesn’t expect a formal EAC audit for the next five years. She reiterated that states must nonetheless submit yearly financial status reports to the agency, outlining their HAVA receipts and expenditures in detail.

The EAC declined to comment on Vermont’s use of HAVA funds through a spokesman, instead directing questions to state officials.

The EAC has its own woes. Republicans in Congress want to abolish the commission, and since December 2010, the group has lacked enough commissioners to issue internal policy or formally adopt budgets. All four commissioner seats are now vacant.

Within Vermont, one of Markowitz’s priorities in 2005 and 2006 was the development of a statewide voter database, which cost an estimated $600,000. In October 2005, about six months before the database launched, Brock, then state auditor (now the GOP candidate for governor), released a deeply critical report on the checklist’s development.

The audit report concluded that failures to keep documentation, follow proper government procedures and assess alternatives raised doubts over whether the HAVA funds had been spent effectively.

“Among the major concerns: There were security issues, reliability issues, issues regarding the software used, questions (about) whether it was robust,” Brock recalled. “It wasn’t a professional development environment.”

Linda Lambert, principal auditor for the report, said, “It certainly wasn’t best practice in IT development.” Lambert remarked that the database’s development ignored well-known strategies for successful projects which had been available for years.

But there were apparently also internal tensions at the Secretary of State’s office over the database’s creation. In a Aug. 18, 2003, memo from Scheele to Markowitz, according to the audit report, Scheele expressed concerns about FoxPro, the development software chosen for the checklist.

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz. VTD/Josh Larkin

Secretary of the Agency of Natural ResourcesDeb Markowitz, who was Secretary of State from 1998-2010. VTD/Josh Larkin

A March 2005 SymQuest report on the use of FoxPro, prepared for Markowitz, also argues that development options besides FoxPro are both cheaper and more effective. The report recommends “a robust and reliable application built on a simple and elegant infrastructure,” rather than compensating for “an application platform’s shortcomings with costly and complex infrastructure.”

Eventually, Markowitz chose FoxPro as the database’s development software, despite SymQuest’s assessment and Scheele’s objections. Markowitz now defends the choice as a wise in-house development strategy, which she said was cheaper than using outside contractors.

Markowitz also claims that “the proof is in the pudding,” insofar as Vermont’s database has lasted as a working model to date and has cost less than those developed in other states by outside vendors. Scheele, who at the time thought FoxPro “a terrible choice,” now also defends the database as functional and reliable, though she says, “It isn’t a Cadillac to look at.”

Both Scheele and Markowitz say that in retrospect Brock’s audit report missed the mark since the database worked after all. (Scheele also complained that the audit held the project to excessively high standards.) Still, Scheele expects the database will be replaced or modernized for the 2014 elections, at a cost of $1.5 million or so.

Most HAVA projects outsourced

Only two states besides Vermont developed statewide databases in-house, without using independent contractors, according to the Election Reform Information Project.

Even as Vermont chose not to contract out the creation of the voter database, it did outsource several contracts for other HAVA projects – but few went through the standard open bidding process. Instead they were outsourced to specific companies, which is rare in government contracting.

In the end, only one Vermont business received a contract funded by HAVA funds between 2002 to 2012, receiving $9,600 out of a total contracts award of $1.68 million, from nine contracts.

State contracts for telephone voting systems, standard voting equipment, and maintenance of the voter database, among other expenditures, were awarded to companies based in Kentucky, New Hampshire and North Carolina, for instance. Scheele said that the contracts did not go through a bid-out process because often only one company sold the suitable technology or service.

Little HAVA oversight

State oversight for HAVA funds, independent of the Secretary of State’s office, appears weak. Formed in 2002, a well-staffed advisory committee helped draft Vermont’s long-term state plan for HAVA funds, but quickly faded away after a few meetings around 2003 and 2004, according to former committee member Marge Gaskins.

Markowitz says that the federal EAC oversees HAVA money, with state legislators also playing an oversight role. But she couldn’t recall many specific concerns or projects lawmakers pushed for, explaining that their main “general concern” was ensuring that the costs of federal mandates aren’t shifted to municipalities.

Markowitz also said that legislators backed the idea of establishing a trust fund for saving and investing the HAVA balance.

There were no public comments at two hearings before Vermont completed its final state plan, with just one lonely emailed comment from the nonprofit Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Vermont’s state plan has not been revised or updated since its approval in July 2003, in contrast to a majority of states that have made revisions.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • I’m not sure what the money would be spent on at this specific time; but I do know one thing we really need to do – and it has to be done legislatively.

    As Vermont law stands right now ballots are retained by the Secretary of State’s office for a period of five(?) years, and then the ballots are destroyed. There is no reviewing of the ballots unless done as a recount.

    We should allow some sort of public access to the ballots once the recount periods are passed. The ballots will not be needed, voter counts from previous elections can be verified and the interests of political science would be well served.

    A process could be instituted whereby select publicly trusted institutions such as UVM or one of the colleges could perform an initial publicly viewable review of the ballots to include scanning the physical ballot into a database. The ballots can then be retained and disposed of per previous law.

    Of course one would expect numbers not to match up perfectly as each time the ballots are handled ballots can be lost or interpreted differently – but as long as we accept this is a review of the election and not a recount it would work.

  • Frank Davis

    So former state auditor Randy Brock, and current gubernatorial candidate, noted … there was “a huge amount of money left to do other things, almost in perpetuity to deal with other voter issues. Frankly, I found that a little puzzling.” Is that out of context by the reporter to make this non-issue seem important? Or is that a real concern by Mr. Brock? After all wouldn’t most people find that Vermont got some money, did some good things with it, has some left over and is NOT spending it willy-nilly, will not have to return it to the feds, but the Sec. State is waiting until there is a well thought out need, as an unusually reasonable and positive measure? I would think so.

  • S O’Leary

    I thought it was odd that the reporter failed to mention that Vermont was just recognized as one of the best prepared states for election day challenges. As Markowitz said “the proof is in the pudding.”

  • Vermonters have one of the most accountable systems in the Country, I believe. Many small towns have refused to automate, preferring the old fashioned, more accountable and democratic ways of counting paper ballots, rather than automating.
    Does this account for why the money was not spent? Several out of state systems use Diebold, which has had problems with accountability and vote fixing all around the country.

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