FRESNO – As election season continues to roll out for 2024, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (Board) has prepared by approving a contract with DFM Associates, Inc. for all election-related functions. This decision was made despite some worries about transparency and contract extensions, but as it was noted by county representatives, for this particular case, the county’s hands are tied.
The Board approved a three-year contract with DFM Associates, Inc. at its convening on Jan. 23. The company provides the software the county uses for all elections-related functions, with the notable exception of the actual counting of votes within the county is done by Dominion Voting Systems.
Prior to its approval, Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters (CCROV) James Kus started the discussion by informing the Board that the county has made use of DFM’s Election Information Management System (EIMS) for over 20 years.
“It is the bedrock of all elections activities, including – but not limited to – all-over registration activities: voter mailings, candidate filing, jurisdictional tracking and maintenance, precinct creation and control, petition signature review processes, election organization, ballot-type creation, voter check-in and recording of voter participation,” he said. “There’s a lot going on here.”
The three-year contract, which includes two optional one-year extensions, was not to exceed $913,460. The contract was retroactive to July 1, 2023. Kus said CCROV began negotiating with DFM in March 2023 to ratify a new contract – the existing contract expired June 30.
He explained the two parties were unable to reach an agreement because DFM did not agree with some of the language contained in the county’s new contractual template. Kus said DFM agreed with the core contract, which allowed for negotiations to go forward.
A NARROW FIELD
The county has two looming elections: the Presidential Primary on March 5 and the U.S. Representative 20th District Special Election to fill Kevin McCarthy’s seat on March 19. Kus said it was simply infeasible to think about changing software this close to the elections.
He also said there are only two companies that provide the type of robust software CCROV uses for its day-to-day operations. Over 80% of California counties use EIMS. The other software, Data Information Management System (DIMS) was sold by the developer after the 2020 election season. Kus said the counties that use DIMS are moving away from it.
“That’s why I don’t consider it a current option for us to consider at this time,” Kus said.
At issue, at least for Brandau, was not EIMS’ performance. Brandau inquired if the one-year extensions would be negotiated between the vendor and CCROV, unlike the contract, which required Board approval. Brandau asked Kus if the extensions would require Board approval.
“No,” Kus answered, “those one-year extensions are the agreement between the department (CCROV) and the vendor. It’s just an action item. It’s an exchange of official letters to continue the contract.”
This did not sit well with Brandau.
“I have a problem with that,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to support it because we need to be super transparent with anything to do with elections. I will make a motion to accept this recommendation with this difference: that any extensions be brought back to the body (Board) which serves the public to make those decisions.”
OUR HANDS ARE TIED
It was noted by County Counsel Daniel C. Cederborg that Brandau’s request was not that simple.
“That is contrary to the language in the contract right now,” he said. “The language in the contract right now has been negotiated by the parties (DFM and CCROV). The Registrar is authorized to sign it.”
Board Chairman Nathan Magsig intervened. Magsig said the most expedient resolution was for Brandau to make a motion to accept the three-year contract with the stipulation that any extensions must be approved by the Board. Brandau said he was amenable but Supervisor Brian Pacheco said this was not permissible.
“The lawyer (Cederborg) just told you that’s not allowed in the contract that is presented to us today,” Pacheco said. “We would not be allowed to approve it as is. Even the speakers from the audience, who don’t want an extended contract, acknowledge our hands are pretty well tied.”
After some discussion, the Board agreed that the most prudent plan was for Kus to address the Board at the two-year mark of the contract and give his opinion regarding the county’s continued use of EIMS or if the county should start shopping for other vendors.
Magsig added, “When we’re approaching the final year (of the contract) or maybe halfway through, you’ll know if you’ll do the extension(s) or if this is going to be put out to bid.”
Citizen Tammy Richardson said she resides in District 1. Richardson said she appreciated that the county had been engaged in protracted negotiations with DFM. She noted that the issue was out of Kus’ hands, but also said this issue should have been addressed earlier so that the public could have had greater say in the matter.
“I feel like this is last minute. We’re in the middle of an election cycle. It takes away time for research and public time for debate,” said Richardson. She also cautioned the Board about entering into a five-year contract.
“We could be missing out on the bidding process to make it more affordable for Fresno County,” she said.
Resident Sean Burdine, however, was considerably more vocal on the subject.
“There is no possible timeframe to consider options for this primary. I understand that,” said Burdine. “But I do believe there needs to be a strong conversation about what we do for the longer term. I firmly believe that the current voting system needs and deserves reexamination. It is unnecessarily complicated and, ultimately, creates an obtuse, long and inefficient process filled with unnecessary weaknesses and vulnerabilities.”
Burdine added there are ongoing election integrity lawsuits in 13 California counties, including Fresno County.
The Board voted 4-1 to approve the contract, with Brandau voting against.