Ballot printer charges more, has big advantage

Staff writersAugust 5, 2010 

BARTLETT

Gary O. Bartlett

SHAWN ROCCO — Staff photo by Shawn Rocco

A New Bern company has a near monopoly on ballot printing in North Carolina, and the work is costly.

Printelect charges rates that are much higher than those paid by the handful of counties that have found an alternative printer.

The North Carolina company is the sole agent in the state for Election Systems & Software, the Omaha, Neb. corporation that won a concession in 2006 to sell and maintain all of the voting machines in the state. That arrangement gives Printelect, who also represents ES&S in South Carolina and Virgina, a big advantage in getting printing jobs.

Gary Bartlett, state elections director, said that while he has not kept up with what ballots cost taxpayers, he acknowledged the state’s arrangement with Printelect and ES&S could be problematic.

“I think it’s a monopoly,” Bartlett said.

It’s difficult to calculate what Printelect has made from the state. Wake, Durham and a few other counties have found ways to use a different printer, and their costs are half what other counties pay. In 2008, Printelect charged Franklin County as much as 33 cents per ballot. Mecklenburg paid 30 cents. Durham and Wake, two of the few counties that have found an alternative to Printelect, paid 19 cents and 13 cents, respectively.

Opportunities to avoid Printelect’s prices are rare for most counties.

Printelect is a subsidiary of the Owen G. Dunn Company in New Bern. The company’s president, Owen Andrews, disputes he has a monopoly and says his customers are free to go to a competitor if they want.

“They choose to business with me because we do a good job,” Andrews said.

Printelect’s prices are competitive and rank in the bottom third of what jurisdictions pay nationally, he said.

Andrews is a large contributor to Democrats, especially Gov. Bev Perdue. Records show that Andrews has given $60,000 to the state Democratic party and to Democratic candidates since 2004. He and his wife has given a few smaller contributions to Republicans.

Andrews said he gave more to Democrats because those are the candidates he supports and points out that he broke no campain finance law.

Andrews is a friend of Bartlett, who said he met the business owner shortly after coming to work at the board of elections in 1993. Bartlett said he socializes with Andrews and has been on his motor yacht on two occasions.

Around 2002, Bartlett said Andrews took him out fishing. The elections director said he wrote Andrews a $200 check to help cover the cost of gas for the boat, a 40-footer named the “Grand Slam.”

Before ES&S and Printelect won the lucrative state concession in 2006, the state elections board hosted a training session at a New Bern hotel to help county elections officials comply with new federal rules for voting machines and ballots. Andrews docked his boat at the hotel and took elections officials for short cruises on the Trent River.

Bartlett said he saw no problem with the businessman giving boat rides to the government officials who buy his ballots and equipment

“Well, he was doing it for everybody there,” Bartlett said. “It was only a 10-minute ride.”

Andrews also sometimes hosts “hospitality rooms” where food and drink are served at state elections conferences. Again, Bartlett said he saw no problem with the vendor covering the cost of refreshments as long as the events were open to everyone who wanted to go.

Andrews points out that his competitors often provide similar entertainment to elections officials, and that he needs to compete.

“You go to any trade show in America, and there will be vendors there,” Andrews said. “In 2005, every vendor was courting Gary Bartlett.”

Bartlett said he had stopped attending Andrews’ parties years ago as Printelect got a bigger slice of the state’s elections business. He also encourages state elections employees not to attend, but says he doesn’t know whether they do. When Bartlett and Andrews go to dinner together, the elections director said he always pays his own way.

Bartlett said that Andrews’ hospitality and friendship had nothing to do with his success getting government business.

“He didn’t have any influence over the process,” Bartlett said.

In 2005, the legislature passed a law meant to get the state’s elections apparatus in line with a new federal law. The federal law, the Help America Vote Act, was a response to the problems in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. The state law required North Carolina elections officials to standardize its elections equipment.

The state’s request for proposals said nothing about the cost of printing ballots. A potential bidder asked if the state had any thoughts about the cost of printing ballots. The answer: The state was only looking for voting machines.

ES&S submitted a 388-page bid that included discussion of Printelect as the company’s North Carolina partner.

The elections board convened a bipartisan panel of experts — that did not include Bartlett — to pick a winner. By the time the State Board of Elections voted to pick a vendor, all but ES&S had withdrawn.

The consequences of the state not establishing guidelines for ballot costs hit elections officials in 2006 when the state, facing a deadline to install new machines in an election year, decided to have Printelect print all ballots.

“This is over double what I budgeted for this year and next,” Mike Ashe, Durham County’s elections director wrote in an e-mail obtained through a public records request. Ashe was accustomed to paying between 12 cents and 19 cents per ballot. Printelect was charging 32 cents, according to his message to state elections officials.

In an e-mail exchange with Ashe, Andrews offered a glimpse at why his prices were higher. In addition to using exact specifications, digital printing and paper stock that Andrews said was only available from ES&S, Printelect owed ES&S a royalty.

“If we could get rid of the certified stock, and royalty, we could get back to the less than 20 cent ballots,” Andrews wrote.

ES&S has a program to certify printers. It requires an upfront payment and a commitment to pay royalties and to buy paper through ES&S.

“I couldn’t see any point in that,” said Ralph Moore, president of Commercial Printing in Raleigh, which prints ballots for Wake, Durham, Forsythe, Harnett and Lee counties.

Moore’s prices are half as much as what Printelect charges. He gets his paper from the mill that makes it and doesn’t owe a royalty. His ballots are tested before an election and they work.

Other counties have asked Moore to print for them, but he’s turned down the business because his company does not have the capacity to print statewide.

Andrews said Moore and other smaller printers can charge less because they don’t have to invest in the staff and equipment to handle massive ballot orders quickly for dozens of counties.

“He has four counties,” Andrews said of Moore. “If he had 85 counties, he wouldn’t be charging 13 cents.”

Bartlett said the State Board of Elections has not studied ballot costs. He said he is interested in exploring ways to try to cut the price of ballots, which he said are a fraction of the real cost of an election — paying workers.

“We don’t care who prints the ballots as long as it works,” Bartlett said. “Even though it’s pricey, things have gone well since 2006.”

State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Carrboro Democrat, sponsored the 2005 law that was meant to get the state in line with federal mandates.

“This is the very thing that our legislation was trying to avoid,” Kinnaird said. “In this most important field to citizens, we have to make sure it is done right and that there is no question about the honesty of the system and the people who work in it.”

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