Elections officials: Contractor hired to provide basic voter details did faulty work

Jeff Pillets | November 12, 2020 | NJ Decides 2020, Politics
As election neared, complaints against vendor piled up, officials said
Credit: (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
File photo: An election supervisor answers questions from an election worker as vote counting continues.

Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

An unknown number of mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election in New Jersey ended up going to ineligible voters living out of state — even to dead people.

Some eligible voters, including overseas military personnel, received multiple ballots. Others received ballots for races in neighboring venues. Undeliverable mail-in ballots sent out with bad addresses are now piling up in county election boards.

The company now tasked with maintaining the state’s voter registration computers proved ill-equipped for the job during the almost all mail-in elections this year, local elections officials told NJ Spotlight News. And many of those officials had been complaining about the problems with the company for some time, including during the July primary election.

“We’ve got a whole room of returned ballots,’’ said Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi. “I wish I could say we never saw it coming, but we all saw it coming, all over the state.’’

Problems in other states

KNOWiNK is a St. Louis-based tech firm tied to voting delays in Georgia, Ohio and Texas last week, and the frequent target of complaints for its work in New Jersey.

Immediately after the July primary, officials said they discovered that KNOWiNK was unable to reliably update basic information such as a voter’s address and eligibility. Although they pressed their concerns with the state throughout the summer, even airing their issues with the governor’s office, the officials said nagging glitches persisted.

In New Jersey, and elsewhere, technical issues like these have sounded a sour note in an otherwise smooth-running election. They have become ammunition for President Donald Trump, his supporters and his allies in Washington as they continue to press unfounded allegations of widespread voting fraud.

Glitches in the state voter-registration system also promise to resonate in coming months as New Jersey lawmakers consider expanding the use of election technology with a new early-voting system that could cost $60 million, or more.

KNOWiNK, the nation’s leading provider of electronic “poll books” necessary for early voting, would be a leading contender to supply the new equipment, despite several high-profile stumbles in recent years.

Vote of no confidence

In 2019, Philadelphia was forced to abandon its planned use of KNOWiNK’s poll books only two months before an election. “The city should not use this electronic poll book system in an election unless there is complete confidence that it will perform reliably,” Stephanie Tipton, the city administrator, wrote to the city’s election board.

The company’s poll books were also blamed for long delays in the Georgia state primary that year. One year later, in June 2020, KNOWiNK’s tech was identified as the culprit in an Election day meltdown that caused long lines in some Los Angeles voting precincts.

In New Jersey, software issues linked to KNOWiNK delayed the delivery of absentee ballots to overseas military voters in this year’s primary. There were also reports that the state computer was cutting off apartment numbers on mail-in ballots.

By the fall, as the Oct. 5 deadline approached for New Jersey county clerks to send out mail-ballots to some 6 million eligible voters, the state’s computers were still battling bugs. New voters who had registered online with the Motor Vehicle Commission were getting duplicate ballots, despite all the complaints.

Fouled-up, not following up

Local officials said they routinely sent in trouble tickets to the KNOWiNK help desk, which were promptly acknowledged. But many of the problems persisted, including maddening foul-ups with addresses.

“Our hands were tied,” said Scott M. Colabella, the Ocean County clerk. “We had no choice but to use a system we knew was full of bad information.”

With the deadline pressing, Monmouth County put out a rare news release asking voters for patience. The county was in the midst of verifying addresses and assembling ballots for more than 450,000 residents.

“One of the greatest challenges has been issues with the statewide voter registration system and receiving the appropriate updates to the voter files from the state’s vendor, KNOWiNK, LLC,” said County Clerk Christine Gioardano Hanlon in the Sept. 29 release. “This has left us in an untenable situation … yet the state has failed to provide us with up-to-date information.”

The state computers were faltering in other areas as well, forcing county officials to fire up legacy software to complete essential tasks such as printing out voter lists for campaigns, paying poll workers and registering Election Day “challengers” sent by political campaigns to oversee voting.

“Geocoding” programs that link residents to their proper voting districts were misfiring, as well.

Problems updating addresses

“The system kept changing information back after we updated it,” said Nicole Dirado, administrator of the Union County elections board. “Voters kept being placed in the wrong towns.”

State elections officials and representatives from KNOWiNK did not respond to detailed questions submitted earlier this week by NJ Spotlight News. Media reports have said computer issues tied to KNOWiNK were responsible for voting delays in four states last week.

KNOWiNK, founded in 2011 by a former St. Louis city election official, says on its website that it is “an industry leader in developing next-generation election technology.” The company says its electronic poll book is now used by 650 election authorities in 23 states.

The firm became lead vendor servicing New Jersey’s statewide voter registration system after inheriting a 10-year, $17 million contract awarded in 2014 to La Jolla, California, firm Everyone Counts. In 2018 Everyone Counts was purchased by another tech startup, Votem Corp. of Cleveland. Votem, which laid off workers and was restructured in 2019, reportedly sold the New Jersey contract to KNOWiNK.

The state officials who promulgated this year’s unprecedented elections have pronounced them a ”success,” pointing out that a record 4.3 million residents cast ballots amid a public health emergency.

“We could not be prouder of the hard work done by the workers on the front line of this unprecedented election,” Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey state department said in a recent interview.

Hardened against hackers

The state’s computers also proved resistant to interference from bad actors. Hardening the computers against hackers was a major goal of KNOWiNK and the state, and it was met, officials said.

Local election workers agree that, overall, the historic vote succeeded despite widespread voter confusion and frustration among county workers who had to invent vote-handling procedures on the fly. But they insist that the technical problems took a large toll on workers and must be addressed before next year’s gubernatorial race.

They are also concerned that the state, with early voting, could be headed into new territory that is even more dependent on high-tech.

“The bottom line for us is that we have to trust what the computers are telling us,” said Melfi, the Hunterdon County clerk. “This year, we found we just could not believe in a lot of the information the state system was giving us. That can’t continue.”

Jamie Sheehan, a member of the Bergen County elections board, said the county is already working with lawmakers to come up with fixes that will make it easier for frontline workers to deal with technical and logistic setbacks.

She said large parts of New Jersey’s voting laws, codified in Title 19 of the state code, have remain unchanged for years and now need to be scrapped and re-written.

“We need a complete overhaul,” Sheehan said.