MJS: Nickolaus changed software before April election breakdown

July 10, 2012
Larry Sandler

Sometime after final testing of Waukesha County's election software - but before the April election - County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus mysteriously changed something in her office's computer programming, according to a consulting firm's report released Tuesday.

Only Nickolaus knows what she did. The consultants can't figure it out, and she's not talking.

But whatever she did, it caused a breakdown in reporting election results that will cost county taxpayers $256,300 to fix, the report says.

And that's not the only money that Waukesha County will have to spend to get its election systems operating properly, County Executive Dan Vrakas said Tuesday.

Aging hardware is out of compliance with federal standards and nearing the end of its useful life, the report says. That equipment was supposed to be replaced in 2009, but Nickolaus killed the project because county purchasing officials wouldn't let her award a no-bid contract, said Norm Cummings, county director of administration.

Now Vrakas and the County Board will need to spend unknown amounts of money in the 2013 and 2014 budgets to replace that equipment before the 2014 gubernatorial election, Cummings said.

Vrakas ordered the report after major problems surfaced in the April 3 election. Although Nickolaus had promised to post timely results online, the public didn't learn the results for hours, as reporters and election reporting service representatives were forced to tabulate the vote totals them selves from long paper tapes.

A proposed fund transfer ordinance, released Monday, briefly summarized some findings from the report by SysLogic Inc., a Brookfield consulting firm. More details emerged when the full report became available Tuesday.

SysLogic found Nickolaus had ordered an upgrade of election software, and after that upgrade, she was the only one trained to program the election computers.

When the reporting system failed, Nickolaus had said she was "shocked," because it had been tested repeatedly.

But, the report says, Nickolaus made a programming change between the end of testing and election night.

"It is unclear what changed in the programming of the (election) software, but something was changed in the ballot program," the report says. "The county clerk acknowledged that a change took place, but did not specify what was changed."

Nickolaus did not return calls seeking comment Monday and Tuesday. After the April election, she agreed - under pressure from Vrakas - to hand off control of elections. She also said she would not seek re-election this fall.

The report portrays the April breakdown as part of a larger problem in which the clerk's office has provided insufficient backup for its systems and staff.

Another issue is that many voting machines do not have a federally approved modem to transmit results electronically to the clerk's office, the report says. That means municipal clerks must bring voting machines' memory packs to county offices on election night, the report notes.

In 2008, Nickolaus proposed spending $600,000 in the 2009 budget to buy 100 new voting machines from Sequoia Voting Systems, but then withdrew that request, the report says. Cummings said the project died after the county purchasing office told Nickolaus she had to seek competitive proposals for a contract that size.

Nickolaus has touted her 15 years of experience in computer programming. That included 13 years working for Assembly Republicans, where she was granted immunity and later cleared of ethics violations during the 2001 investigation into campaigning on state time.

But Cummings has long clashed with Nickolaus, an independently elected official, over her refusal to work with the county's information technology experts.

That's going to change, Vrakas said. He vowed to follow the report's recommendations and work with the next county clerk to tighten procedures and add backup.

"We will make changes to restore the people's faith and confidence in the election reporting in Waukesha County," Vrakas said. "We can't continue to operate the way we have in the past."

Vrakas, a fellow Republican and onetime supporter of Nickolaus, said the county clerk had "put herself in a position that you don't want to put yourself in," as the sole trained programmer for election software.

"It's disappointing, obviously," he said. "I'm sorry it had to come to this point."