After a new voting app failed Monday night in Iowa, several Idaho county officials fear new elections software set to launch the day after the March 10 presidential primary could spell similar chaos in the Gem State.
Though many Idaho elections officials aren’t worried about experiencing Iowa’s woes — a malfunctioning app and jammed phone lines that resulted in a reporting blunder in the state’s Democratic caucus — they are concerned that beta-testing of Idaho’s incoming software has uncovered errors and inconsistencies related to campaign finance tracking, voter registration and post-election reporting processes.
Some officials are asking the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office to again delay the date in which the new software is expected to go live after a Jan. 13 date was pushed out to March 11.
“We’re going to be on the national news just like Iowa if we go forward with this program prematurely,” said Bannock County’s Elections Administrator Julie Hancock. “While we are not using the same technology and apps that Iowa used and our elections run differently than a state Democratic caucus, we are still rushing out a system that has had so many problems here that we just stopped testing it.”
Secretary of State Lawerence Denney announced in August 2018 his selection of the Tampa, Florida-based Tenex Software Solutions Inc. from the six vendors that submitted proposals to become the state’s new election system software provider. The implementation of Tenex software, contracted at a cost of $4 million, was announced as a staged rollout over the next year and a half.
According to Hancock, Tenex has vast experience working directly with individual counties in various states but has never performed a statewide rollout of its software. Tenex did not list all of its clients on its website and the company did not return the Journal’s request for comment on Wednesday.
Bannock County Clerk Jason Dixon said the staged rollout should have begun in June and July 2019 with various informational materials and training from the Secretary of State’s Office and Tenex, followed by several months of beta-testing that would allow county elections staff and clerks to further their knowledge by working directly in the system.
When county elections staff were finally provided some access to the new Tenex system two months ago, much of the software wasn’t — and still isn’t — functioning properly, Dixon said.
“A year ago, the Secretary of State’s Office told us we would be playing with this system for months and months prior to its release, but consistently afterward nothing was ready for a rollout,” Dixon said. “Then, when it was rolled out, nothing worked. Right now, you can’t do one task from point A to point B to completion. Not one module works from beginning to end.”
In Bonneville, Bannock and Power counties, elections officials encountered issues transferring voter registration info from the current system — software from the Chantilly, Virginia-based company Perspecta, which has an office in Boise — into Tenex, with some registrations displaying the wrong voting precincts or taxing districts. Moreover, elections and clerk staff in those counties have uncovered instances in which a candidate running for election will have data for a different candidate listed under their campaign finance profile on the Tenex portal.
Hancock and Dixon told the Journal they are also aware of multiple county elections offices that have been able to log in to Tenex from outside of the elections building, both on Wi-Fi-connected devices and network-based smartphone connections.
“When we first received access to Tenex, we were told we would have to log in and register the IP address where we were logging in from,” Dixon said. “It may not be a huge issue that you can log in from your phone, but it is problematic that they told us that we couldn’t. That is concerning. People cannot hack into our actual election system and change votes, but it seems like they could get in there and affect our reporting.”
Originally, the Secretary of State’s Office planned to transition entirely from the Perspecta system over to Tenex in mid-January, but delayed launch until March 11 after Dixon says all but six of the state’s 44 county clerks voiced concerns to Denney directly during a Boise training of the new system during the first week of January.
The Secretary of State’s Office told the Journal last month that it, as well as Tenex, was confident the system could have been launched without any issue, and that clerks and elections officials lacking understanding of the system was what resulted in the delay.
“While Secretary Denney was confident in both our vendor’s and our team’s ability to complete the rollout in the intended timeline, he was also keenly aware that many clerks felt even with a perfect rollout, their staff did not have enough familiarity with the new system to be confident in its use in this cycle,” Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck wrote in a Jan. 14 email. “As such, the decision to delay decommissioning of the existing state voter registration system, while offering those counties that felt comfortable with using the new system the opportunity to do so in parallel, made the most sense. It addressed everyone’s concerns and found a proactive middle ground in order to achieve the collective goal of both the SOS office and all 44 counties – providing Idaho’s voters with a successful, accurate and secure March presidential primary.”
The solution from the Secretary of State’s Office, according to Hancock, was to have 12 Idaho counties run both the old Perspecta and new Tenex software systems during the March presidential primary and require all counties to switch over to Tenex the following day — somewhat of a beta-testing process that Dixon says should have happened months ago.
For some county elections officials, Houck’s comments regarding the delay of the transition seem to imply the issues surrounding the implementation of Tenex are user-based as opposed to legitimate problems with the software itself. While there could be some element of elections officials not understanding the new system, some think that’s because Tenex was not presented to them until late last year, and that even with difficulties that arise when learning new software, that doesn’t mean actual software issues aren’t present.
“I do not agree with Houck’s statement at all,” said Sharee Sprague, the clerk of Power County, which is one of the 12 counties running both Tenex and Perspecta for the March primary. “I don’t think any clerk in the state would say that the problem with rolling it out before the state presidential primary was a familiarity or a training issue. It was a problem with the software not functioning as it is supposed to function.”
Sprague said she is hopeful the Tenex implementation doesn’t occur until after the May 19 primary for state and local candidates.
Penny Manning, the elections director of Bonneville County — another county using Tenex and Perspecta during the March primary — says she is grateful the old system will still be available to use because confidence in Tenex working as designed is rather low.
“There are still quite a few bugs in the new system that need worked out,” Manning said. “I am hopeful that the Secretary of State will delay the rollout beyond the March 11 date if the issues aren’t resolved. Though most of the clerks indicated at the January conference that they would benefit from additional training, I don’t believe even the Secretary of State believed Tenex was ready for a rollout.”
While Houck says dozens of tickets regarding system issues have been resolved since a new Tenex update was launched on Jan. 29, several East Idaho elections offices this week reported experiencing the same problems they’ve been dealing with since January.
Additionally, Houck said the Secretary of State’s Office and Tenex will continue to work diligently with county elections and clerk’s office officials following the March presidential primary and ahead of the May primary for state and local candidates to ensure any outstanding software and system familiarity concerns are resolved.
Ada County, the most populous in the state, also intends to use both Tenex and Perspecta during the March primary. Though Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane noted that Tenex is still not quite ready for a seamless rollout, he said elections and clerk’s office officials would rather the system be in place for the May primary as opposed to the November general election, of which the latter would see a much larger voter turnout.
“At this point I can share that Tenex hasn’t been functional enough for us to be the primary system,” McGrane said. “We are using the new system and old system and have run into a few hurdles.”
McGrane added, “But my staff is still asking that we go live with Tenex leading into the May election. It’s one of those questions, ‘Do you tip-toe in the shallow end or do you dive into the deep end?’ For my staff, we look at the May primary as a smaller election in terms of turnout and they would rather take on the risks that are involved and the extra work in a smaller election and are fearful about running it out before the big November presidential election.”
Though Tenex is scheduled to go live across the state on March 11, many county clerks have archived data from Perspecta in the event the new system launches with any discrepancies.
Furthermore, most county clerks were set to hear from Denney on Thursday. Denney was already scheduled to speak with clerks as part of the Idaho Association of Counties legislative winter conference in Boise.
Though the implementation of Tenex was not on the agenda, Houck said it would almost certainly be a discussion item, adding that the Secretary of State’s Office will continue to listen to county clerks and elections officials about potential problems ahead of the new software launch.
“We expect clerks are going to want to address concerns or issues that they have with Tenex, but it was not a meeting that we scheduled to try and address this issue, nor is it something that has been brought up as a need,” Houck said. “We will only roll the system out when it is ready. We will not necessarily concede that (Tenex) is not ready because there is still a tremendous amount of time to deal with development.”
Houck added, “But that fact that we listened to concerns the last time and made the decision to adjust the rollout date speaks highly to the fact that we do listen to them and do consider their input.”