Election equipment companies boost Election Day tech support

Voting system manufacturers say they don’t expect major equipment glitches to disrupt voting and vote tallying on Nov. 4. Nonetheless, the leading companies that develop election machinery are boosting their technical support operations – largely from reduced levels – in the run-up to Election Day.

At San Leandro, Calif.-based Sequoia Voting Systems, External Affairs Vice President Michelle Shafer said the company is setting up an “election night war room.”

During its off-season, the “vast majority” of the system manufacturer’s 130 employees are assigned to customer support tasks. That changes on election night, Shafer said, when “everyone in the company works in some manner to support our customers.”

Hart InterCivic will open its 50-person help desk during the weekend, Operations Director Peter Lichtenheld said. On Election Day, the Austin, Texas-based election systems provider will begin staffing the desk at 4 a.m., keeping it open around the clock, he said.

“We anticipate going pretty much 24 hours after that,” Lichtenheld said.

In addition to the 50 employees staffing Hart’s headquarters, the company has deployed another 24 employees to election sites around the country. The company also relies on a number of consultants, but Lichtenheld declined to say how many.

Election Systems & Services spokesman Ken Fields said the Omaha, Neb.-based company has split its technical support employees between staffing headquarters and various counties and cities administering elections.

“It’s going to depend on the jurisdiction,” Fields said of the United States' largest election systems manufacturer. “We provide technical support to jurisdictions who seek that from us.”

Already, as record numbers of voters go to the polls early, computers have crashed in Georgia and voters have reported “flipped” votes in West Virginia, Texas and Tennessee. Election administrators are also saying they’re receiving less support from the system manufacturers than they have in past years.

“We’re hearing from jurisdictions that they’re just not getting the support that they’re used to,” said Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors. “But economic reality is economic reality.”

Smaller voting system manufacturers such as MicroVote of Indianapolis and Unilect of Danville, Calif., have deployed most IT and technical support staff members to the municipalities and counties they service.

Unilect President Jack Gerbel said his company employs three IT staff members full-time. During election season, he said, “We have several other people on call that we can get.”

Shafer, of Sequoia Voting Systems, says the nature of customers’ inquiries changes as election season progresses.

“Usually something previous to election night is related to database creation,” she said. “And on election night or after election night, it usually has to do with reports.”

Hart InterCivic’s Lichtenheld said 90 percent of customer inquiries require that technical support staff coach election administrators on basic equipment usage.

“Our biggest concern and problem is someone shot themselves in the foot,” Lichtenheld said. “We’ve got to help them recover.”

Just as record numbers of voters are registered, Lewis, of the National Association of State Election Directors, said election system manufacturers’ IT staffs have been shrinking.

Most manufacturers have laid off staff members this year, he said, and many rely increasingly on temporary employees. For IT professionals, full-time opportunities are becoming less common at voting system providers.

“Why would he want to go get a job that’s going to keep him employed for 6, or 8, or 9 months?” Lewis said. “It’s not an ideal situation for a lot of technology professionals.”

The Help America Vote Act signed into law in 2002 is largely to blame for election equipment providers’ shrinking IT staffs, Lewis said.

The law forced many new equipment purchases into a short period of time after its passage instead of spreading them out over a sustained period.

“It forces a whole lot of sales into a short window, but then it made it impossible for the vending community that services elections to maintain those large support staffs,” Lewis said. “Their business models have changed to such an extent that they’re all struggling to try to make this work in their favor from a very changed landscape.”

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