The longtime Hays Democrat who questioned the accuracy of the county’s old electronic voting machines in the November 2018 General Election is now asking Ellis County Commissioners to go back to using paper ballots.
A March 18 open letter to the Ellis County Commissioners from Hays Attorney John Bird asks the commissioners to save tax dollars and forego buying new voting machines.
“This is your chance to show that fiscal conservatism starts at the local level,” said the letter from Bird, former chair of the Ellis County Democratic Party. “Do the taxpayer, the voter, and all the citizens the favor of safeguarding their right to have their votes counted properly while safeguarding their tax dollars, too.”
Bird addressed the letter to Ellis County Commissioners Dean Haselhorst, Butch Schlyer and Dustin Roths, who are struggling with a county budget where expenses outpace revenue.
Ellis County Clerk Donna Maskus, the county’s chief election officer, has defended the Nov. 6 General Election outcome and recount process, but says the county’s machines are old and need replaced.
Ellis County has 69 voting machines serving its 10 polling sites. They are 12-year-old ES&S iVotronic touch-screen machines running with old software dating to 2004 and 2005.
A new Kansas law this year means Ellis County must replace its voting machines with an election method that allows a hand count of ballots, which the iVotronic can’t produce.
In her effort to get new machines, Maskus in February invited three different vendors to demonstrate their voting machines to the public.
“It’s just a crying shame,” Bird said, noting votings machines have a shelf-life of about 10 years. “It’s a waste of money. To do it on paper is minuscule compared to that.”
Maskus said she has received bid proposals for new voting machines from three vendors, including from Election Systems & Software, Omaha, Neb., the makers of the iVotronic. She said she’ll present those to the county commissioners at either of their next two Monday meetings, April 1 or April 8.
“It will be up to the commission how they want to proceed with that,” Maskus said.
The county budget has $300,000 earmarked for new machines, money that has been saved up over the years, she said, for when the existing machines wore out and needed replaced.
“We will not have to spend that much on election equipment,” Maskus said. “We are not even going to go close to that.”
In arguing against voting machines, Bird has consistently cited a 2007 Project Everest voting study for Ohio that examined electronic voting machines for security vulnerabilities. That analysis found an abundance of technical weaknesses, structural flaws and security failures, which led the researchers to conclude that iVotronic and some other electronic voting machines in use lack basic technical protections needed to guarantee a trustworthy election, their summary said.
Voting machines, Bird said in his letter, “are at the very least insecure and pose many dangers to both voter privacy and election accuracy.”
He said results of Ellis County’s 2018 General Election showed uniquely large discrepancies in certain voting districts in the county.
“Precinct reports came back showing that voters within certain precincts would vote for a certain candidate around 65-70% of the time on paper and in that same precinct the voters supposedly voted for that candidate as low as 43% of the time via machine.”
He went on to say that “Ellis County showed signs of major anomalies in voter behavior and any political expert or analyst would tell you that many of these events just do not happen on their own. Sadly, because of the system used, nothing could be done.”
The iVotronic has been abandoned in some states where, for example, they’ve been observed flipping votes from one candidate to another.
Maskus, however, said fears about the new voting machines should be put to rest with the hours of public demonstrations, where the public and local election officials asked questions of the vendor representatives.
“Looking over it, I think we’ve proven everything John is rehashing,” she said of Bird’s letter. Any of the new machines will allow the county to fulfill Kansas law requiring a post-election audit must be carried out before the votes are officially canvassed by the county commissioners.
Ellis County has about 17,000 registered voters. Without machines, Maskus said, “we would be here all night, possibly tabulating, and there could be errors in the tabulations. We’re in an age where the machine tabulates them in a short rate of time.”
Bird was closely involved with November’s election recount of the 111th District race, which saw now state Rep. Barb Wasinger defeat 18-year incumbent Rep. Eber Phelps by 35 votes.
Bird represented Phelps in questioning reliability of the voting machines and the Nov. 6 election.
A Nov. 20, 2018 recount that confirmed Phelps lost did not alleviate concerns. Bird argued Nov. 20 to the Ellis County Canvassing Board that the county’s machines were not properly calibrated prior to or after the election, and that some malfunctioned, throwing doubt on the results.
If new voting machines are approved, Maskus said they would be purchased this year and in place for the next election, whether it’s an August primary, if needed, or the next general election in November.