The Investigators: Voting equipment became more expensive after elections administrator’s modifications

Updated: Oct. 8, 2020 at 5:35 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County voters will choose their preferred candidates next month using machines that have been in operation for over a decade.

In September, and for the second time this year, the Shelby County Commission did not provide the funds needed for new voting equipment.

The resolution securing the funds was deferred, in part, because of concerns raised by Election Commissioner Bennie Smith.

“The vendors' bids were quietly changed by millions of dollars,” Smith told The Investigators.

Smith is talking about the bids submitted by three companies for new voting machines.

The bids were reviewed and scored by a team lead by Elections Administrator Linda Phillips.

Phillips presented those scores to the Election Commission at its May 7 meeting and recommended awarding the contract to the company Election Systems and Software, which comes with a cost of nearly $6 million.

Smith voted against the recommendation.

“How can I, as a sitting commissioner, not see any cost information but I’ve got to vote on it to spend the county’s money?" he said.

Smith says when he obtained the actual bids submitted by Hart Intercivic, ES&S and Dominion Voting, he discovered the prices differed from what Phillips' presented to commissioners.

“All three vendors, in my opinion, should be upset the same. Even ES&S as the winner should be upset that their numbers were changed," he said.

Public documents obtained by The Investigators show ES&S’s bid included pricing for 200 scanners, 200 tote bins and one additional memory device.

In Phillips’ PowerPoint presentation to the Election Commission, it includes more scanners, more tote bins and many more memory devices.

Phillips modifications increased the purchase price from $3.9 million to nearly $5.1 million.

Phillips made similar modifications to Hart Intercivic and Dominion’s bids as well.

In an email to The Investigators, a spokesperson for Hart Intercivic wrote “we have very serious concerns about the fairness and transparency of the entire process in general and the significant modification of the hart numbers in particular.”

“I think there’s been some really epic misunderstanding about what happened,” Phillips told The Investigators.

Phillips readily admits she modified the quantity of equipment from each of the bids but maintains she didn’t break any rules.

“I didn’t change those numbers. Those were based on the exact dollar to figure that they placed in their bids,” she said.

“Well, they were changed,” said The Investigators.

“No, they weren’t changed in the sense that I didn’t manipulate the bids. I evaluated the proposals based on what Shelby County needed.”

A Shelby County spokesperson told us in email the practice is “not uncommon in procurement and would not require a new scoring process” but that the Administration is not weighing in on the changes Phillips made.

“Do you think the process was fair?” asked The Investigators.

“Absolutely not,” said Smith. “This process was far from transparent.”

“Do you understand Commissioner Smith’s concerns?” asked The Investigators.

“No,” said Phillips. “I just think Commissioner Smith is raising heck because he didn’t get his way.”

Smith voted against the ES&S contract Phillips recommended, but he’s also been a vocal supporter of the analog hand-marked paper ballot system, which he says is more secure and cheaper.

Phillips supports electronic ballot-marking devices, as does the committee she chose to review the bids and systems themselves.

According to Phillips' presentation, the electronic system will save the county money over time.

“It’s a good compromise, it’s a good system, it’s easiest for the poll workers and the committee picked it,” said Phillips.

“She made the hand-marked paper ballot solution look extremely unattractive, which is what she had been saying publicly,” said Smith.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners are set to vote on funding for the machines again Monday.

Either way, the equipment would not arrive in time for the November election.

Meanwhile, ES&S didn’t have any comment on the changes, while Dominion did not respond to our emails.

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