Chronic Failures of Louisiana Secretary of State’s Website Raise Serious Questions About the Integrity of Elections

Today, Orleans Parish held the biggest and most consequential municipal election in Louisiana since 2010. The entire New Orleans City Council (with the exception of Councilwoman Cantrell, who ran unopposed), the Mayor, the Sheriff, the Clerk of Criminal Court, and the Coroner were all on the ballot. Millions of dollars had been raised and spent. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s re-election campaign, in particular, was being closely watched by the national media.

There aren’t many people in the world who would be willing to spend a Saturday night obsessively refreshing the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website, but there are a few of us. If you’ve been at this as long as I have, then you know I am not exaggerating: On an election day, the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website is almost guaranteed to fail.

Shortly before the polls closed tonight in Orleans Parish, I made a bold prediction:

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Of course, this is obviously not the most pressing problem facing Louisiana, but until tonight, I had been willing to simply assume that the chronic failures of the website on election nights were a result of technical glitches and run-of-the-mill institutional incompetence. Now, I am not so certain.

The polls closed at 8PM tonight in Orleans Parish. At 8:16PM, WWL reported some breaking news:

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 11.38.19 PMGreg Rigamer called the New Orleans Mayor’s race more than 35 minutes before the Louisiana Secretary of State posted the results of early voting (which are usually uploaded within five minutes). Indeed, Rigamer and WWL (which, presumably, compensates him as their “election consultant”) were somehow able to call this election almost an hour before the Louisiana Secretary of State began posting precinct returns. Quoting from Greg Rigamer’s corporate biography:

Gregory C. Rigamer, Founder / Director

Greg Rigamer
Greg Rigamer

In 1979, Greg Rigamer used his professional expertise in the areas of urban planning and management consulting to establish GCR Inc. as a full-service professional consulting firm. Over the years, Mr. Rigamer has diligently guided the expansion of the firm to encompass such diverse areas as criminal justice reporting for courts and law enforcement agencies, election information systems for the broadcasting and reporting of election results, process and chemistry data management for nuclear power plants, financial management applications for government and private entities, and large scale facility inventory systems for institutional property owners. Following the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Rigamer led the transformation of many of the firm’s technical and analytical capabilities into a significant disaster recovery consulting practice.

Make no mistake: When a reputable local news station decides to call an election only sixteen minutes after polls close and before a single vote has even been posted, people pay attention. The rest of the media kept hitting the refresh button on a broken website, attempting to find results that Greg Rigamer and WWL had been privy to almost instantaneously. (Update: I should make it clear that I am not accusing WWL of doing anything improper; in fact, they should be commended for doing real, on-the-field grunt work).

But that’s not the real problem here: The real problem is that Greg Rigamer’s company, GCR, recently signed a $2 million contract with the Louisiana Secretary of State to plan, design, configure, and support its “Commercial Online Registration Application” (CORA) and its “Elections Registration and Information Network” (ERIN).

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 12.05.43 AMAccording to Greg Rigamer’s company website, it sure sounds like they’re responsible for managing a substantial portion of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s information technology systems. Quoting (bold mine):

ERIN has zero tolerance for error and 24/7/365 is required for availability and reliability.  It is used by 64 parish Registrars of Voters to maintain critical information on voters and provides functions for all election-related accounting activities including paying vendors and personnel who work for an election event. External interfaces within the system ensure up-to-date information; namely, the Louisiana Department of Corrections, Vital Records for Death verification, and the Office of Motor Vehicles/ Department of Public Safety (DPS).  For example, the system communicates with LADPS to query the driver’s license database and verify the identity of a person filling out an online form.   This project included GIS-based districting, Internet voter registration, and other enhancements.

I should make this abundantly clear: I don’t know what, precisely, Mr. Rigamer’s company provides the Louisiana Secretary of State, but I know what the Louisiana Secretary of State asked them to provide. And I know that Mr. Rigamer’s contract with the Louisiana Secretary of State represents only a portion of the work that he receives from taxpayers.

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Ironically and embarrassingly, despite the fact that Rigamer’s company’s $2 million contract also includes the design of its “Commercial Online Registration Application,” the Louisiana Secretary of State lists GCR as “Not in good standing.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 10.20.19 PMIn fairness, GCR’s annual report was due only two days ago, so it’s possible, if not plausible, that it’s still being processed. Regardless, though, it is troubling that Mr. Rigamer was the first to “call” the New Orleans Mayor’s race, and it’s troubling that Mr. Rigamer, apparently, may have had access to data well before anyone else (though I absolutely concede the possibility that he based his projection on his “gut instincts,” or, more likely, on exit polling and poll-watching; four days ago, I predicted Mitch Landrieu would receive 62.5% of the vote, and, as it turns out, my prediction was within 1.5 points. He ended up with 64%). Quoting from WWL:

Eyewitness News consultant Greg Rigamer called the race for Landrieu about 15 minutes after polls closed, based largely on returns from early voting.

There is real economic value for a media company- whether it’s print, cable, or online- to be the first to “call an election.” In an ideal world, our elections are open and transparent in real-time. Ideally, we should be able to base our assumptions, predictions, and projections on the same set of facts. Ideally, the state government should be able to post election results before a taxpayer-funded contractor markets his access and expertise to a media outlet. It is more than curious that Mr. Rigamer’s company helps run the information technology systems of an agency that has, repeatedly, failed at providing the public with real-time election results.

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 1.09.09 AMPerhaps unwittingly, Mr. Rigamer, in deciding to call the Mayor’s race in New Orleans well before votes had even been posted, forces all of us to confront some serious questions about the integrity of our electoral process: Who, exactly, owns and controls this data? Who is really responsible for the state’s information technology systems? How can we best ensure accountability and transparency? And most importantly, how can we guarantee that these systems are not susceptible to fraud, manipulation, and exploitive profiteering?

There is another reason to be concerned: In addition to the million of public dollars GCR receives through, presumably, the RFP process, which typically circumvents public bid law, GCR also was paid tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a voter database on behalf David Vitter’s Political Action Committee, the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM). Mr. Rigamer’s company is not only assisting the state, he’s also being paid for similar work by wealthy Republican lobbyists. Quoting (bold mine):

Presently, LCRM is spending about $20,000 per month with the New Orleans-based GCR and Associates for ‘computer database services.” Earlier this year, it also dropped an additional $90,000 for software development. It’s worth noting the GCR holds several contracts with the state and is at least a minor player on the recovery circuit. But the database system the company is developing may change the way Republicans win elections for some time. Diez admits that’s where all the money has been going, and its impact on the race shouldn’t be underestimated.

Then, of course, there’s this (bold mine):

The Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board would develop and implement these programs with $30 million in BP funds.

The state hired Gregory C. Rigamer & Associates to provide strategic planning for a $15 million marketing campaign. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries received $12.4 million for administrative fees and support with the final $2.6 million going to campaign-related expenses.

As of June 30, nearly $17 million of those funds have been spent with the majority, $11.7 million going towards advertising and market research.

The audit looked at all spending through June 30 and discovered a number of significant transgressions including Rigamer & Associates increasing job budgets without approval, resulting in increased expenses.

The Food Group, a subcontractor hired by Rigamer & Associates, was approved for a $93,000 job but incurred expenses totaling $174,213. Rigamer then increased the maximum allocation for this job to $193,000 from $100,000 without obtaining the required approval from Ewell Smith, former executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

The Food Group was also approved for an $88,000 job but accrued expenses totaling $129,706. Rigamer increased the maximum allocation to $130,000 from $42,000 without approval, the report said.

Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne’s office terminated Rigamer’s contract effective Nov. 2.

Somehow, Rigamer and company have managed to keep multiple hands in multiple cookie jars.

This may be even more shocking to some: Not only is Mr. Rigamer’s company being paid by taxpayers to build an election database, they are also selling their services to candidates. Quoting from The Gambit (bold mine):

Lee and campaign consultant Gregory Rigamer, who is advising Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s campaign, agree that most early voters are “chronic voters” who tend to vote in every election.

I don’t fault Mr. Rigamer, at all, for being an entrepreneur. His resume is wildly impressive. But it is also terrifying, or, to borrow an old adage, it seems to be 1000 feet wide and one foot deep: He’s a campaign consultant who moonlights as a demographer, all while running a marketing company that dabbles in the development of highly-sophisticated information technology systems. Occasionally, he works in aviation and nuclear energy. Tonight, for the purposes of WWL’s election coverage, his title was “Election Consultant.”

Don’t get me wrong: In many ways, he is a hero to me, a real Renaissance man, Louisiana’s Most Favored Consultant (MFC), but all have a right to know the results of our elections at the same time he does.