The nation’s largest voting equipment vendor has for at least nine years coaxed state and local elections officials to serve on an “advisory board” that gathers twice annually for company-sponsored conferences, including one last year at a ritzy Las Vegas resort hotel. The arrangement could compromise the integrity of the officials’ decisions — or at the very least, the optics of those decisions — at a time when they are faced with efforts by Russia and perhaps other nations to disrupt the upcoming mid-term elections, ethics and elections experts said. As many as a dozen election officials attended the March 2, 2017 Las Vegas meeting, with a number of them accepting airfare, lodging, meals and, according to one participant, a ticket to a show on the Strip from their voting systems vendor, Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software (ES&S). Two other panel members said their state election boards paid for their trips. The unusual practice, which has not previously been reported, offers a glimpse of one way in which a voting equipment manufacturer has sought to cement relationships with government officials, some of whom play roles in the award of millions of dollars in contracts.
Ethics experts and election watchdogs say the company’s hospitality and hobnobbing with government officials is potentially corrupting. “This is a massive promotional opportunity for ES&S,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C. “It’s highly inappropriate for any election official to be accepting anything of value from a primary contractor. It shocks the conscience … I think it compromises their integrity.”
ES&S and other vendors have much at stake as election agencies nationwide gird for the possibility that Russian operatives or others will attempt to alter votes or otherwise tamper with election equipment. In 2016, Russian-backed hackers penetrated Illinois’ voter registration system and unsuccessfully attempted to do so in 20 other states before the presidential election, though there’s no evidence they tampered with votes, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security disclosed last year. Separately, Russian Internet trolls who bombarded U.S. social media accounts in 2016 with fake news aimed at sowing divisions and rallying support for Donald Trump have remained active. U.S. intelligence officials say they expect the Kremlin to meddle in this fall’s congressional elections, too.
Many states are continuing a shift to voting systems that produce paper backup ballots, so vote counts can be verified in post-election audits. ES&S is peddling electronic ballot-marking devices that produce paper ballots to be fed into optical scanners – equipment that critics contend should be limited to use by disabled voters. Paper ballots, they say, are far less expensive and can be scanned and quickly tabulated.
The situation also shines new light on gaps and weaknesses in state ethics laws.