Investigations

Ballot stuffing was a problem at a local home show until the AccuVote came around.

Some builders and designers wanted to win the People’s Choice Grand Awards so badly, former Homearama show producer Gail Schell said, that they’d enlist workers to cast fake votes when administrators went home for the night.

So, roughly 20 years ago, Schell said the organizers asked the Jefferson County Clerk’s office to help.

Two taxpayer-funded technicians and a voting machine owned and operated by the clerk’s office came to the rescue. It’s been a tradition ever since, and for 16 days a year, county clerk employees oversee the home show competition while they’re on the clock.

It’s among many other private elections that have been serviced by the Jefferson County Clerk’s office, which have taken up more than 1,100 hours of staff time since 2001, records show.

Union halls, churches and other groups have paid the clerk’s office for decades to use their voting machines and employees for their private elections. The state auditor’s office has questioned the program’s legality for at least five years.

Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw’s office defended the practice as recently as October, when it responded to the latest audit finding. But Holsclaw’s spokesperson Nore Ghibaudy told KyCIR the office decided to stop the practice last summer.

The state auditor has asked Holsclaw in every audit since 2013 to stop lending her employees and voting machines to private groups. Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Mike Harmon told KyCIR that using public funds — in this case, paid public employees — for private benefit is prohibited.

“Anytime that you’re using some public funds for a private enterprise and receiving some sort of remuneration for that, there are concerns there,” Harmon said. “It’s important to the taxpayers. We have a limited number of assets available.”

Holsclaw’s office has charged at least $45,600 since 2001, invoices reviewed by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting show. Invoices show the clerk’s office has provided machines as well as employees, who did ballot prep and monitored the scanner during elections.

Jefferson County Clerk's Office records

Aside from the fact that the clerk shouldn’t use staff and property for private benefit, Harmon said, the clerk can’t charge for the service because the law hasn’t addressed it and the state hasn’t set a fee.

Employees didn’t get paid overtime to work private elections and instead took time off if it caused them to surpass 40 hours, according to Nore Ghibaudy, spokesperson for the clerk’s office.

Still, the office might continue the Homearama agreement. The clerk’s office works Homearama for free. Ghibaudy said the office trades for a booth space at a home and garden show and the opportunity to connect with the public. Staff time adds up to about 180 hours.

Experts: Practice Raises Security Concerns

No other county clerks in Kentucky run a voting rental service, according to the auditor.

Kevin Kennedy, who was Wisconsin’s election chief for more than 30 years, said he doesn’t think anyone in his state does either. If elections officials asked if they could try it, he’d advise against the practice because it’s not a wise use of public resources, he said.

“As public officials, you need to take actions that are going to gain the public trust,” Kennedy said. “Public outreach does enhance that, but putting voting equipment in a vulnerable place may cut the other way.”

But Tammy Patrick, who served on President Barack Obama’s Presidential Commission on Election Administration, said it’s fairly common for others nationwide to administer private elections.

The key is to treat the voting machines at private events with the same care exercised at a general election. That means placing tamper-evident seals over all ports, ensuring the machines stay offline and meticulously documenting who had the machine, where and when, Patrick said.

Ghibaudy said staff take all those precautions when taking them to events, use only machines designated for training and don’t take them out 30 days before or after an official election.

Theodore Allen, an associate professor of integrated systems engineering at the Ohio State University who studies cybersecurity, said supervision on Election Day can serve as a deterrent for hackers.

“If you then use the machine for private elections not under the watchful eyes of anyone associated with the election outfit then there could be many opportunities for the insertion of malware,” Allen said.

Ghibaudy first told KyCIR that technicians sometimes left machines unattended. But later Ghibaudy said the opposite: that at least one staffer stayed with the machine during private elections.

During Homearama, the machine stays overnight but goes to a 24-hour security trailer where it is locked with two separate keys that are held by county clerk employees, he said.

Ghibaudy insisted that staff would catch any hacking attempts right away. Each machine operates independently from the other and gets reprogrammed before each use.

“Those (machines) cost money. We want to make sure they’re safe and secure,” Ghibaudy said.

Clerk Says Issue Is Politically Motivated

In response to the most recent audit finding, Holsclaw wrote that she planned to continue administering private elections.

“The Jefferson County Clerk’s Office, the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office and the County Board continue to believe voter education, election promotion and training are public purposes,” Holsclaw wrote in the audit response. “Therefore, election services are still provided for a fee, to private entities, such as unions and churches.”

The auditor’s office doesn’t have power to enforce its recommendations. A spokesperson at the Kentucky Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the finding.

The office shut down the service this summer because it grew tired of fending off critical audits, according to Ghibaudy.

“I think it started with one auditor really looking for anything they could do to make a name for themselves possibly,” Ghibaudy said.

Adam Edelen, a Democrat who’s currently running for governor, first
pointed it out in a 2013 audit after informally asking the clerk to abandon the practice for two years.

In the years before his rental service finding, Edelen had criticized Holsclaw for misusing funds. At the time, her office called Edelen’s assessment politically motivated.

Harmon, who became auditor in 2016, is a Republican like Holsclaw.

“I think it’s just continued because the audits continue, ‘Well, did you change this? Did you adjust this?’” Ghibaudy said.

Even a voting program where the clerk’s office brought machines to high schools got the axe, Ghibaudy said, though Harmon has repeatedly said he had no problem with it.

Clerk May Continue Running Homearama Voting

Jefferson County Clerk's Office records

But Ghibaudy said the clerk’s office might continue helping with the Homearama People’s Choice Grand Awards, because the agreement is different.

The clerk’s office said it doesn’t charge Building Industry Association of Greater Louisville, which runs Homearama, because of the booth trade.

“For us, yeah, it’s a booth trade, but we’re registering people to vote,” said Ghibaudy.

He couldn’t recall how many voters register at Homearama.

Harmon didn’t know about the Homearama trade until KyCIR asked him about it. He said it might end up on the next audit.

The current Homearama event manager didn’t respond to an interview request.

Schell, the former Homearama show producer, said up to 10,000 votes are recorded at the show, which displays custom-built homes that are furnished, decorated and landscaped with the latest trends and technology.

But also, Schell said, county employees register voters and take questions about anything from vehicle registration to marriage licenses.

Schell said having clerk staff at Homearama and the garden show helps a lot of people get answers to their county government questions without having to take time out of their work day to go to the clerk’s office.

They also lend credibility, she said, to Homearama’s award process. The county employees make sure the victor wins the prize — a plaque — fair and square.

Contact Caitlin McGlade at (502) 814-6541 or cmcglade@kycir.org.

Caitlin McGlade is an investigative reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.