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S2E14 – An Insider Look at the Business of Voting Equipment with Hart InterCivic’s Peter Lichtenheld

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Peter Lichtenheld with Hart InterCivic – one of the companies that provides election technology, software, and services to election jurisdictions – about the business of election equipment, some of the challenges the industry has faced, and how things have changes for these companies since 2000.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits: Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith Managing Producer: Aaron Hay Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Brianna Lennon: Well, and one of the other things to think about, too, is voting equipment is an extremely, extremely expensive undertaking, and something that most election authorities can only do once a decade – if they are lucky.

[Podcast Intro]

Eric Fey: Hey everyone, this is Eric Fay with my co-host, Brianna Lennon, and in this episode, we're delving into the world of voting equipment acquisition and the providers of voting equipment and voting technology.

And I would say this aspect of election administration is very crucial for election administrators, and it's something that's somewhat uniquely American in that we have this plethora of local election jurisdictions, and almost all of them need to figure out a way to acquire technology in order to tabulate their ballots.

Because unlike places like Canada, France, and Italy, other, you know, kind of quote unquote, Western style democracies where ballots are mostly hand counted and tabulated. In the United States, we have very long ballots, with many, many contests, and races, with overlapping jurisdictions and precincts, and so, technology becomes a requirement almost to make that an efficient process to get an initial tabulation of votes.

So, there are some minimal federal requirements through, promulgated by the Help America Vote Act, the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, and those are administered by the Election Assistance Commission. And many states, probably most states require that voting technology used in each state, in that state meets these federal requirements. Some states have more stringent requirements or some additional testing or, you know, certification requirements. Some states have less.

But in any case, states and counties and cities and local jurisdictions rely on private companies to provide this voting equipment.

Lennon: The process is not incredibly well known to people because it's such an administrative part of the job. In a lot of cases, when we're going to buy elections equipment, it's similar to when we have to go bid out paper or bid out envelopes. It’s just a much higher scale of things, and there's a lot more scrutiny involved. So, just as an example.

Well, and one of the other things to think about, too, is voting equipment is an extremely, extremely expensive undertaking, and something that most election authorities can only do once a decade – if they are lucky.

And it's still a relatively… in the span of elections administration, the first real purchases of the electronic voting equipment that we use happened in 2005, 2006 when there was a lot of federal grant money infused into the process to upgrade voting equipment, and a lot of local election authorities – up into the last couple of years – were still using that equipment that they originally purchased in 2006.

So, we're now on kind of the second round for a lot of people, especially smaller jurisdictions that don't have a huge county budget, and I would include myself in that. We bought our new equipment in 2019.

I think I guess the other thing that I like to point out about voting equipment acquisition is that it doesn't just end when you’ve bought the equipment. You don't just buy the equipment, and then say, “Okay, have it, it's great, let's run elections on it.” There's still testing that happens before every election. There's ongoing maintenance that has to be done. There's, you know, parts of it that you learn that you love and parts of it that you learn that you don't like, and you have to train poll workers on it, and it's a very involved thing. So, equipment becomes a very integral part of your elections process regardless of what kind you use,

Fey: But all that being said, I think what's most interesting about this process is that there are these private companies behind all this voting equipment, and it’s a for profit business. And so, election administrators try their best to get the best deal for the tax money that they're spending and to try to understand what they're getting.

[Music Interlude]

Fey: This is Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri. This is another exciting episode of High Turnout, Wide Margins. We're at the Election Center annual conference in Denver. And I'm with my co-host...

Lennon: Brianna Lennon.

Fey: And our guest…

Peter Lichtenheld: Peter Lichtenheld.

Fey: So this is, I think, the first time we've interviewed somebody who is in the business of the election business. So, tell us what you do, and first, how you got into this — this role and how you got into elections.

Lichtenheld: Sure thing. So, I was a teacher. I taught for 19 years in Austin, Texas in the public school system, and we did an election in 2000, rolling up to the 2000 General Election. We did an election for the school mascot, and somebody at the school had a relation that worked at Hart InterCivic, and they had a new voting system coming out. And the first election they ever ran with that voting system was for the kiddos at the school to vote on the school mascot. And I took my kiddos down, and they did that, and I said, "That's pretty cool” and soon after I called somebody at the company and said, "Hey, I'm interested in interviewing for a job there." I interviewed for a job that ended up not being on the voting system side, wasn't really excited about it. I didn't get a job offer. And then I interviewed for a job on the voting system side, I did get a job offer. And I was very excited about the job and became a trainer with one employee. So, I've been at Hart for 21 years since.

Nowadays, what I do for Hart InterCivic is I'm the Vice President – Senior Vice President of Customer Success, like I said, and I tell people, "Look, the job's kind of easy because it's easy to tell people what I do because what I do is in my title.” I'm in charge of keeping customers happy. Not that that's always easy, but easy to explain what I do. I'm, that's our job, my job is to help my team keep customers happy and help customers have successful elections.

Fey: Well, one thing I was hoping to accomplish with this interview Pete – and I guess first I should say for full disclosure, St. Louis County, where I am employed is a customer of Hart InterCivic.

Lennon: Boone County is not.

Fey: And Boone County is not.

Lichtenheld: There you go.

Fey: Just want to, I feel like that's a journalistic like, disclosure thing.

So anyway, I think more so than talking about Hart, in particular, we're hoping to talk about kind of the election business – because these various companies that make election equipment or develop software that election administrators use have been kind of thrust into the limelight after 2000.

And I was hoping maybe you would talk from kind of a corporate perspective. How do you prepare for those things? How do you interact with your customers to deal with those kinds of issues? I guess, I mean, maybe start there. That's kind of what I was hoping to talk about.

Lichtenheld: Sure. That's great. And I won't advertise. So, I'll try not to.

Yeah, so from the business perspective, I guess I would call it, of elections. I mean, it is a business. That's what we've decided in America – that a private sector would help us provide the technology to run elections. I always like to say, "Look, the first person really in America who tried to sell a voting system was Thomas Edison." By the way, he wasn't very successful at it, but you know, we look at him as somebody we respect. An election system provider, I like to call it a provider, not a vendor, because a vendor feels soda machine with coke. That's not what we're doing. We're providing a system to solve a problem. And that's what Thomas Edison was doing.

So, we try to look at it from a business perspective, from a market perspective, from a needs perspective, you know, what do the customers need to fulfill their duty and to have successful elections in that jurisdiction?

Every jurisdiction is different. Every state is different. So, we start at the, you know, highest level, of course, meet the requirements of the Election Assistance Commission, meet the EAC requirements. And then go to the states that have a market, right? That are interested in buying at that time, right? It doesn't do any good to build a system for a state, "x" state, that is not buying voting systems. So then, go to states that are in the market to buy – what do they actually need? How far away is that purchase cycle? And try to build something that is the best in the market to meet their need.

I think that's pretty much what every voting system provider as far as voting equipment, right? Because there are a lot of different things in the voting ecosystem, right? There's voter registration. There's poll books, election management systems, etc. So, I would say as far as voting system providers, that's the way, in general, we kind of look at it.

Lennon: Have you had any – I mean, we could go really far back, but I'm just curious, after the 2020 election, have you seen a shift in the way that your customers are – states and counties –that they're asking more or different things from you than they have in the past?

Lichtenheld: No, for sure. I mean, it's changed drastically. So, I've been doing this 21 years now. So, I've seen a lot of change. You know, there was, you know, I would say, in the early years when HAVA, of course, came – now our system like it just happened to be in the right place in the right time because we really built it for early voting and our first system was a DRE. So, it was, you know, it was great for early voting, and DREs were really great for election management, right? As far as election management –

Lennon: Can you define what a DRE is?

Lichtenheld: DRE is a direct record electronic. So, no paper trail, basically. Even the first DREs were. So, they were great for election managers. Election managers loved them. A lot of them now are having a hard time letting go of that concept. But you know, voters told us, told everybody, "Hey, we want a paper trail, we want paper in hand." So, that's one of the big changes that happened.

And, you know, it's kind of ironic, but we literally as a business have had to tell our customers, "No, you've got to get over the DRE. It's not happening. We're not selling those anymore,” you know, basically, that “it's time for you to move on to paper because that's what – that's what America wants." So, that's an example of a change.

I'd say people are way more savvy about their purchases. I mean, just like a lot of other things we buy, right? People are just way more savvy, ask better questions, ask other jurisdictions before they just rush out and buy. People check your background, right? They check your references.

They're – at the beginning, I would say, and, I guess, like maybe I already said, the HAVA years, there was like a, you know, gold rush to buy voting systems. There was this, you know, free money from the federal government without a lot necessarily a kick in the tires and thought into it sometimes. Not that there wasn't, you know, there wasn't for everybody, but some of the times that that's how it was. So hopefully that answers your question.

Lennon: No, it does.

[Mid-episode Break]

Lennon: I'm acknowledging that you are one of many equipment [companies], so this is from your perspective, but you mentioned that you've had to – you've acknowledged Hart has acknowledged that DREs are not coming back and that we've moved to a more paper-based system that I assume is based on, you know, larger, larger forces, then your customers coming to you and saying, "Hey, we've now decided that we want paper."

So, what drives a lot of the thought process of, "Okay, well, now we're working on the next round of equipment, or now we're trying to make improvements to it." What kind of considerations are taught – are taken when those decisions are being made?

Lichtenheld: Yeah, it's huge. I mean, it's, it's forward-thinking, right? How innovative can you be? I mean, you can't be real innovative in this market, unfortunately, right? Because you got to build something people are going to buy, and what are people going to buy? They're going to buy things that meet the standards. I mean, you have to meet the standards. So what standards are there? What are the next standards? What standards do you build to? What standards are going to be in the RFP? The request for proposals, that means. The RFPs that come out and from the decision makers in those jurisdictions across the country. So, that's really what decides what you build. So, you can't – we can't do "If you build it, they will come" because you will go bankrupt if you do that.

So, you have to do what are the requirements? How can I best meet those requirements? What do people want? And can I build that for a low enough cost to meet the need of that potential customer, and be able to sell it and be able to keep my business profitable?

Fey: Pete, you talked a little bit about the challenge of developing a new voting system, and that's one thing I've noticed in my time being an election administrator is you'll have somebody from the public or maybe a state legislator who has an, you know, an IT background – I used air quotes there – and they'll see some challenge we face say, "Oh, you know, there's Apple has this. Microsoft is, you know, whatever the case may be,” but like you said, you just can't see a problem with something in the election system, and then develop a solution for it the next day. There's this whole process.

Can you maybe to the uninitiated, or probably to a lot of election administrators, as well – can you describe kind of from the corporate side, what does it take to bring, not necessarily just a new system, but just even a fix to the existing system?

Lichtenheld: Yeah, it's there – it's hard. I'll just say it that way, it's hard. And the other thing I didn't even really talk about is there's also accessibility, all along the way. A big thing you have to look at, and you know, bad on me for not saying it earlier actually, is accessibility because accessibility is also a huge part of any solution you're going to run out there.

Yeah. So building the system, you know, what are the requirements? How do we build to those requirements? And then, what is the design of the thing? You know, and how do we best design it, for usability, for everybody, and especially for people with disabilities?

How do you – how is it going to be stored? What or how are the batteries gonna work? The batteries gotta last this long, how you're going to charge the batteries? Are you going to charge the batteries? I mean, there's just all that stuff. How heavy is it going to be? How you're going to do if – if some jurisdictions do curbside voting – how are you going to do curbside voting? How – are you going to put on wheels, you're going to fly it out there? You know, what – how you going to do all this stuff that the end user has to do?

Then, once you've determined that from design, you know, you got to go out and double-check, right? So, you got to find customers and say, "Hey, don't tell anybody, but this is the thing we're thinking about doing next. What do you think?" And they're gonna say, "Oh, I love that. And I hate that." And you're like, "What? You hate that? We thought you'd love that?" No, we got to go back and talk to other customers, make sure everybody hates that. And then you have to maybe redesign that part because everybody, turns out, hates it. Then after you've done all that, and decided, okay, this is the thing we want to build, you got to find your suppliers, find out how much it's going to cost to do all those things. Can it even be done through your tooling? Make prototypes, you know, go through, and start at the federal level getting certified, once you've gotten actually got the product, have it – you can build it, it's certified. Then, you need to go to states and say, "Okay, here it is, here's the next best piece of sliced bread,” and, you know, "Will you certify it?" And somewhere in there, depending on the state, you can start selling in that state.

In some states, you cannot start selling until it's actually certified, so you've like taken this huge risk. It's taken two years, right? To do all that stuff I just said, and then you can start selling, and at that point, you're like, "Well, I hope I built the right thing because now I got to pay for all that stuff I just did,” which is millions of dollars to do all that. So, that's kind of it in a nutshell, I'd say.

Lennon: Given all that, do you think that that's a good process? Do you think that it should work that way?

Lichtenheld: Since I don't know a better way or a different way, you know, I'm not sure that I can really opine on that, but I do – having seen other software systems that did not have guardrails, right? They didn't have the, you know, the kiddie rails in the bowling alley, you know, which is certification basically. I would say having certification gives a nice structure for things actually. Yeah, it's unfortunate it cannot be, you know, we can't be faster because of the certification requirements, but I also think the guardrails of certification help, because they set standards that must be met and processes that must be followed.

Fey: So, it's a highly regulated industry, it takes a lot of investment and time to get through this certification process and due diligence. But then there's only a fixed amount of customers.

Lichtenheld: That's right.

Fey: There's only so many states and counties in the United States –

Lichtenheld: Like 3,600, or something. It's a very small market.

Fey: And that's it. And so it's…

Lennon: And people want their equipment to last a long time. So, it's not even like we're all buying at the same time.

Lichtenheld: That's right.

Fey: So you don't see companies like Apple or Samsung, or whatever, developing voting systems, probably, by and large for that reason. So how can the United States, how can we maintain a viable private market that's competitive where counties and states have, you know, real options to choose from when it's such a constrained and regulated process?

Lichtenheld: It is a challenge. Right now, there are probably, what? Half a dozen voting system companies in the United States. Three that are really the top sellers, the top brands. I don't know how long that's sustainable. Right now, it is fairly sustainable. It is, you know, an open market. I think in the best cases, the way it works is the best solution wins, I mean, and that's how it ought to work. And there's nothing wrong with that the best solution wins, that's a good way to do things. The first over the finish line – that maybe isn't always the best way to do things, right, because the jurisdictions want and deserve, and voters deserve to have choices.

And I think there's a lot to be said, for voting system companies showing that they have – that they're a good company. It's not just about the product. It's about the company. It's about having integrity. It's about having people, you know, like me, who are gonna stick around there for a long time, because we believe in what we do. And I would say every voting system company, by the way, we feel like we are helping America to be a democracy, to be a democratic republic, to be the best we can be at providing successful elections where the winner won, and a recount is going to turn out the same way the original count turned out.

Lennon: So, what is it like, I mean, you know, we as election officials have voters that are unhappy, have people that voice concerns and things like that – what is it like to be one of the companies that gets hit with some of this ire on a national level? Does that? Because I assume that nobody is calling you all directly, I mean, nobody's calling like the corporate offices, and maybe they are, but what does that look like from the company's perspective?

Lichtenheld: It's hard. First, I'll say, it's hard, just like it's hard for y'all. And, you know, we try to take the perspective of where I first started, I guess, this conversation of customer success. That we want our customers to be successful, so – and that we have our customers' back.

So, we do actually get direct calls – mostly from journalists, and we try to actually be helpful with journalists, but we do check their background and make sure they're actually a journalist, right? And we'll, you know, we talk to journalists because we want journalists to be informed.

If it's just irate voters – I shouldn't say just – if it's an irate voter, we check with that jurisdiction the voter is calling from, if we can figure that out, and we try to let the jurisdiction know about that. Because we don't feel like that's our place or appropriate. That's for the customer to deal with directly, and we'll help them with that.

And then for the rest of it, yeah, it's customers coming to us and saying, "Hey, you know, there’s this article out there says these things, and can you help us respond to that?" Or there's "We have a voter asking these questions, can you help us respond to that?" And we do, right? We've gone to forums to try to help – in-person forums to try to educate the public because that's what we have to do.

I mean, no matter how tough the road is to do that, you've got to try to do that. Because if you don't educate the public – I'm preaching to the choir here, but if you don't educate the public about, "No, that's not a fact, right? That's an opinion that you're saying, and you're regurgitating things that aren't true. Here's the truth." If you don't just constantly do broken record on that, then you never get the truth out there. So, we try to help our customers get the truth out there.

Fey: Kind of the last question I had is, what do you wish like the kind of the public writ large understood about the private industry of elections?

Lichtenheld: Yeah, that's a great question. I wish, I think I wish, it’s really such a simple thing. I wish people understood that the folks who work for election voting system companies, election providers, we're all – we all believe we're doing the right thing. We all believe we're doing a good deed. You know, I was a teacher before I felt like I was doing a good thing, right? Teaching kids and helping families. We feel like we're helping voters and we're helping jurisdictions across America.

And, you know, the folks who attack the private sector, who say, you know, we're hacking or we're allowing hacking or we're flipping votes or whatever. It's like – that doesn't make sense. We're in a business to sell equipment that works, and the thing it's supposed to do is count votes, and then report on the correct count of those votes to the public – you. So that you can know who you picked as your leaders. Why would we do anything to sabotage our own business that's not in line with that? So, I think that’s – that's the gist of it.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon – alongside Eric Fey. Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay, and our Associate Producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.