by Mike McCabe, Executive Director
June 9, 2005
Wisconsin was second only to Minnesota in voter turnout last year – 77 percent of eligible voters here went to the polls in the 2004 general election, compared to the national average of 64 percent. And 63 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots, an impressive 13 percentage point increase from 2000.
You’d think our state’s political leaders would see this as a good thing.
But no sooner were the votes counted and state lawmakers were pushing legislation making it harder to vote. Before rumors of voter fraud could be substantiated, they were peddling a Patriot Act-style solution that, it turns out, doesn’t solve the actual voting problems that since have been documented.
For fear of being left off the if-it-ain’t-broke-break-it bandwagon, the state Elections Board sprung into action a matter of days after the election. Well, actually, an unelected official serving at the pleasure of this unelected board single-handedly committed the taxpayers of Wisconsin to pay the notorious global outsourcing firm Accenture close to $14 million to create a statewide voter registration list.
This is a company that used to be known as Andersen Consulting, part of Arthur Andersen of Enron fame. This is a company whose parent is based in Bermuda to avoid paying U.S. taxes. This is a company that had a hand in the infamous purge of African Americans from Florida’s voter list before the 2004 election. This is a company that is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for bribing foreign officials. One of this company’s top officials is chairman of a South African company that played a major role in propping up the former apartheid government.
This is the outfit we’ve entrusted with the most important list that will ever be developed in a democratic society – our voter registration list.
Here’s where things go from bad to worse. The taxpayers are on the hook to pay Accenture $13.9 million under a contract that neither the state nor Accenture are committed to honoring. Accenture already is seeking to renegotiate the contract to obtain more favorable terms. The company now says it will not be able to deliver nine items required under the contract. Accenture also wants to push back some deadlines it can’t meet. And the company now says the payments it is due to receive under the contract for technical support and maintenance of the voter registration system are inadequate and need to be increased.
Elections Board director Kevin Kennedy – the same Kevin Kennedy who unilaterally signed the contract in the first place – says he agrees the contract needs to be rewritten and is open to giving Accenture more money.
All of this comes as no surprise, in light of Accenture’s well-established track record of cost overruns and missed deadlines on other projects, and considering the Elections Board’s record of project mismanagement.
Remember, a “Citizens Right to Know” law was enacted in 1998 requiring the Elections Board to create a system of electronic filing of campaign finance reports by July 1999. The board squandered several hundred thousand dollars it initially received without successfully implementing an electronic disclosure system. More than two years after the implementation deadline, the Elections Board asked the Joint Finance Committee for another $3.5 million to complete the new system. The committee said no.
Tired of waiting, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and another citizen group hired a law firm to pursue a court order. Under threat of a lawsuit, the Elections Board adopted an emergency rule we drafted implementing electronic filing – at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Four years after its enactment, the Citizens Right to Know law finally took effect.
Now the Elections Board’s director is open to sweetening a voter-list contract that already was a horribly raw deal for taxpayers. In addition to the $13.9 million the state has agreed to pay Accenture, millions more are being spent on other aspects of the voter registration project – including $2.7 million to another private firm, Deloitte Consulting, for project management and $10.2 million for state Elections Board staff oversight, hardware and data entry – for a total cost of $26.8 million. In contrast, Minnesota relied on state employees to do its statewide voter list and completed the work at a cost of $5.3 million.
Now Accenture wants even more for doing less than it promised to do. And the Elections Board seems poised to say OK. The mind reels.
Wait, now the story goes from worse to weird. The state asked a circuit court judge to give the contract his stamp of approval even as it is being torn up. The judge ruled Kennedy did not have the authority to enter into the contract unilaterally, but gave the state a mulligan and upheld the contract on the grounds that the Elections Board made the contract valid by retroactively ratifying it in late January – more than a month after our citizen lawsuit was filed challenging the contract.
We’ve passed through the looking glass.
Even though the judge took us to Wonderland, my hunch is we’ll eventually end up in Kansas. The state of Kansas entered into a contract with Accenture to develop its voter registration system last October and quickly lost confidence in the company’s ability to complete the work. State officials there cancelled the contract in February.