When Secretary of State Mac Warner‘s office provided me with a project schedule for installation of the Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) system that will transmit voter data from Charleston to county clerks’ offices, it reminded me of an Amtrak timetable: Lots of padding built into the schedule.
Even though the $1.5 million funding for the project was secured in June, project initiation isn’t set to begin until Nov. 4, and is to take the remainder of the month.
The actual installation process is to begin in December, with a completion date of April 17, 2020, followed by two months of testing and training.
OK, so that’s about eight months.
Then comes “Soft Go-Live and Sandbox Testing,” which is to begin on June 22, 2020, and take until Jan. 15, 2021 — basically, an additional seven months.
I asked Warner spokesman Mike Queen what exactly that entails, and got this response:
“Soft go-live and sandbox testing are terms of art referring to launching a new system in a controlled environment [i.e. a ‘sandbox’] before it’s completely finished being built so that the users [55 county clerks, their staff, and SOS employees] can test the available functionality. By analogy, think of that time period for testing as a turning on the lights and testing the plumbing in a new house before the contractor puts up the drywall. If something’s not working, it’s still possible to troubleshoot and identify the issues without creating substantial delays.”
(Not sure about the analogy. If I had a contractor who took seven months turning on lights and testing plumbing, I would get a new contractor.)
Queen said the project timetable was set by the vendor, not the Secretary of State’s Office.
Which is interesting, since the vendor, PCC Technologies, has installed AVR technology in three other states, Alaska, Rhode Island, and Vermont, a process that took between four to 11 months from enactment to implementation in those states.
(Last week, I faux pas-ed and mistook the state’s voting systems vendor, Election Systems & Software, as being the AVR vendor. An ES&S representative immediately contacted me wanting a correction — I suspect the company didn’t want to be associated with reports that it would take them 17 months to set up a system that other vendors have installed in other states in less than a year.)
I reached out to PCC Technologies for comment, but did not receive a response as of my Friday evening deadline.
Warner wrote an op-ed piece last week spelling out reasons for the cautious and deliberate rollout of AVR, and why he believes it cannot be ready in time for the 2020 elections.
“The process is technical, and needs to be done properly to protect against voter disenfranchisement that has occurred during implementation in other states due to old systems, gaps in technology and human error,” he wrote.
In addition to media outlets, Queen sent copies of the op-ed to legislators who have been critical of what is on pace to be a five-year slog to implement AVR. Suffice to say, the responses weren’t exactly positive. Couple of examples:
Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha: “Mike — I find this op-ed misleading at best and dishonest at worst. Do you really plan to tell the public that the Legislature, with no request from your office, delayed implementation of a bill it passed years ago?”
Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio: “Mike, please let Secretary Warner know that I think his op-ed is a load of s*** ... The fact is Secretary Warner has not made AVR a priority. Period. Other states with much larger population have figured out this apparent rocket science in a timely manner. The animus of Secretary Warner’s position on AVR still wreaks through in his op-ed. He doesn’t even endorse AVR — a.k.a., more people voting — but instead states he’s acting at the ‘behest’ of the Legislature.”
Meanwhile, it is worth noting that AVR didn’t come about as a stand-alone bill in 2016, but was part of a compromise to build bipartisan support for what some saw as a voter suppression measure, requiring voters to show ID at the polling place before they can vote.
AVR was added to the legislation as part of a House-Senate conference committee compromise, primarily through the efforts of Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.
(Delegate Fluharty had offered an AVR amendment in House Judiciary Committee, but it was rejected on a largely party line vote.)
Ironically, it has been noted that the Secretary of State’s Office and county clerks had no difficulties implementing the Voter ID portion of the legislation in time for the 2018 elections.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely is seriously considering running for another term on the court in 2020, saying he can bring stature to a court he said is sadly lacking in the same. (His tenure as justice far exceeds the judicial experience of three of the five sitting justices combined.)
“The court system is in shambles,” he told me. “It’s in shambles because around 2002, the justices of the Supreme Court lost control because they couldn’t stand one another.”
Neely, who last served on the court in 1995, is putting out trial balloons to gauge the amount of support his campaign could generate. He said he wants to be assured support is strong, since running for justice would require that he shutter his private practice and freeze his judicial pension.
Surreal moment of the week: Gov. Jim Justice, chairing the state Board of Public Works meeting, turned what should have been an hour-long meeting into a 2 minute, 20 second fiasco.
For those familiar with parliamentary procedure, the normal process for each agenda item is a motion to take up the item, a second, followed by discussion and consideration of amendments, and then a vote to approve or reject.
Justice, who frequently sends a designee to the board meetings, on each agenda item called out in rapid succession for a motion, a second, and for the vote without discussion.
One of the agenda items was the annual receipt of the preliminary assessments for public utility properties.
Poor Jeff Amburgy, state Property Tax Division director, stood to give his report (as he does each year), only to have Justice blow past any discussion.
(Amburgy actually had some good news to share — that, thanks to the natural gas pipeline construction boom, the assessed value of pipelines in the state jumped by nearly $1 billion in the past year, contributing mightily to a projected $30 million increase in tax collections for counties and cities around the state. Of course, it may be that from Justice’s perspective, it wasn’t such good news, since it shows the state benefited from a short-term economic bump, and is not necessarily on an economic rocket ship ride.)
There were also three intergovernmental property transfers on the agenda, and in the past, board members have frequently raised questions and made amendments to the terms of those agreements. Not this time.
One of the items was a transfer of property from the state to the National Guard, and a number of guardsmen, including Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, had taken time away from their duties to be in attendance to answer questions.
From this episode, we can conclude that Justice either doesn’t understand parliamentary procedure, or couldn’t be bothered to devote an hour of his time to perform one of the more mundane duties of his office.
Also troubling was that none of the board members — the board is made up of the governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, attorney general, and state superintendent of schools or their designees — bothered to tell Justice he was botching up the process.
Speaking of Justice, ALEC — the right-wing Koch brother(s)-funded organization that provides our Legislature with draft legislation, saving them the time and effort of having to actually study issues — released a report rating all 2019 State of the State addresses.
Naturally, the top-rated State of the State addresses, by ALEC’s standards, called for massive tax cuts, elimination of government regulations, endorsed anti-union measures such as Right to Work, and/or called for cutting governmental services and benefits, including safety net programs.
Conversely, governors got downgraded for what in ALEC’s view are such monstrosities as Medicaid expansion, increased minimum wage, as well as calls for increased spending on transportation, public school construction, public safety and health care initiatives, and for programs to assist the homeless.
ALEC had particular wrath for proposals to tax the wealthy, including proposals to replace Illinois’ flat income tax rate with a graduated tax, and proposals to extend the temporary millionaire’s tax (a higher income tax rate on persons with incomes over $1 million) in New York and New Jersey.
ALEC found Justice’s State of the State address to be a mixed bag, giving him props for promising no new taxes, and calling for exempting most Social Security benefits from income taxes (passed) and for a phase-out of the business inventory tax (not addressed).
However, it chastised Justice for proposing increased spending on “tourism, drug addiction treatment, foster care, employee health plans and job training centers.” (Oh, the horror.)
Perhaps Justice can do better in ALEC’s eyes in the next State of the State, and let the tourism industry, drug addicts, children, public employees, and the unemployed fend for themselves.