Secretary of State moves quickly for overseas ballot delivery system despite concern from clerks

08/29/2013 12:58 PM

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is sorting through bids for a system to send ballots electronically to Kentucky natives deployed overseas — and one that could potentially return those ballots, which is what’s causing consternation among county clerks.

The specs for the contract, whose bidding process started Aug. 1 and closed Aug. 16, calls for a system that could handle sending the ballots online to overseas military personnel, as allowed in Senate Bill 1 that passed the legislature in March.

But the request for proposal also says that the selected firm “must have (a) solution and platform to allow for and facilitate the secured electronic return of a voted ballot” in case the law is changed in the future and funding exists to pay for such a system.

“Vendor must have successfully delivered both electronic ballot delivery and secure electronic return statewide in binding government elections, with no security breaches and 99.9% reliability on the proposed system,” the document says on page 19.

That has some clerks concerned, especially after they lobbied to have any requirement for returning ballots from overseas stripped out of Senate Bill 1. They argued the technology isn’t there yet to keep those ballots private and tamper-proof.

“That smacks right in the face of Senate Bill 1,” said Julie Barr, the Oldham County Clerk’s office and president of the Kentucky Clerks Association. “We don’t quite understand what brought this on.”

Bradford Queen, spokesman for Grimes’ office, said Senate Bill 1 charges the Secretary of State with setting up “a portal that would most easily deliver those ballots.”

He said he could not talk about particulars regarding the bidding process because the bids are still being evaluated. A spokeswoman for the Finance and Administration Cabinet said the Secretary of State’s office wants “a vendor chose ans soon as possible.” Procurement officers are reviewing the proposals now. But the state doesn’t disclose the number of bidders or the firms’ names during this process, said Finance spokeswoman Pamela Trautner.

Barr said consternation over the language included in the request for proposal was a major topic of conversation during last week’s meeting of the Kentucky Clerks Association in Elizabethtown. She said none of the clerks were given a heads up that the request for proposal was even going out even though they will have to deal with the eventual vendor — along with the firm they already use to collect votes from their counties — in the next election.

Queen said he couldn’t speak to efforts to communicate with the clerks about the contract.

“The Secretary of State’s office was charged with setting this up. And that’s what this office is doing,” he said. “Once the vendor is chosen, the clerks will be trained to use the new system.”

Beyond the communication issues, there are political implications for Grimes, who is running in the U.S. Senate race. The passage of Senate Bill 1 was considered a key policy win for Grimes during the 2013 General Assembly even though it passed without the provision to allow ballots to be returned electronically — which Grimes wanted included.

But this latest flare up reveals more friction between Grimes and the majority of the county clerks. That type of disconnect was never seen during the tenures of past secretaries of state, such as Democrat Elaine Walker, Republican Trey Grayson and Democrat John Y. Brown III.

Of the 120 clerks, 108 signed on to efforts to block Grimes’ proposal to allow ballots to be returned electronically. And some clerks took it personally when Grimes said repeatedly that her efforts were in support of U.S. military personnel, implying that to oppose her was to be against the troops.

“We have always had a very good relationship with the secretary of state’s office in the past, so this is kind of a surprise for many of us,” Barr said Thursday. When asked how to describe the relationship between the clerks and Grimes, Barr would say only, “It’s just not as easy.”

Clerks also have questioned the tight turnaround of the bidding process.

“They thought that was highly unusual — such a tight time frame for that system,” Barr said of her fellow clerks’ reactions.

The state sent out the request for bids on Aug. 1. Initially, the proposal period was scheduled to end Aug. 12 before that deadline was extended to Aug. 16.

In fact, one of the requests from companies was to extend the deadline to September.

“The time frame for this response is very short. We would appreciate it if the state would consider a one-month extension for the response,” one potential vendor wrote.

“No,” said the response. “However, the RFP closing date is extended to Aug. 16.”

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