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From the archives 2020

How Allegheny County came to rely on a company that sent 29,000 ballots to the wrong voters

by Tom Lisi for Spotlight PA |

Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

PITTSBURGH — Less than three weeks before Election Day, Allegheny County had to make a major announcement: Nearly 29,000 voters had received the wrong mail-in ballot.

The blame, officials said, belonged to Cleveland-based Midwest Direct, a mailing and marketing company whose internal system had wrongly assigned voters’ addresses. Two Republican candidates quickly challenged the county’s decision to send voters new ballots but later settled, with officials agreeing to follow an existing policy to segregate the initial and corrected votes.

Midwest Direct is also in hot water with its home state of Ohio, where several counties reported delays in getting mail-in ballots to voters’ homes.

“Just to be clear, 16 counties in Ohio had voted as a bipartisan board of elections to hire this vendor,” an official said, not naming Midwest Direct by name. “It’s really unfortunate and truly unacceptable that this vendor had over promised and under delivered.”

How did Allegheny County come to rely on Midwest Direct to handle a crucial part of the voting process in a presidential election? As it turns out, the company did not go through traditional bidding, nor was its contract ever voted on by elected officials, Spotlight PA has learned. County administration officials did not even hire Midwest Direct directly.

Rather, the company came to control the mailing of Allegheny County ballots as a subcontractor of Omaha, Nebraska-based RBM Consulting, which was given a contract this year by county officials with an estimated cost of $2.2 million through a little-known purchasing program run by the state.

But some local officials, including those in Allegheny County, wrongly believe the state program does more vetting of the companies it selects to be included than actually occurs.

Established in 2004, that program, COSTARS, is designed to attract private suppliers — mostly ones that sell products that cities and towns most commonly need, like pens and fire trucks — to be pre-approved so they can bypass the cumbersome bidding process with local governments. In turn, local government officials can bypass public requests for bids or formal approval from a council or board of commissioners.

“There’s a vetting process that the state uses for these particular vendors,” Jerry Tyskiewicz, Allegheny County’s director of administrative services, said during the election board’s October meeting. “They give us a list of people that are available, and we look for those for a variety of processes, whether it be toner cartridges or anything else. It just makes it available at a cheaper price.”

But companies interested in registering with the state only need to meet some basic qualifications, and there’s no guarantee they’re offering the best price.

“We award our contracts to all responsible and responsive bidders,” Bruce Beardsley, a former marketing manager at the state Department of General Services, said in a video for potential vendors featured on its website. “That means if you do your paperwork right, and you’re not in jail, and you’re paying your taxes, and don’t have problems with the state, we’re going to award you a contract.”

Department of General Services spokesperson Troy Thompson said suppliers in COSTARS are also subject to terms and conditions that make them entirely responsible for their work.

County Council Member Bethany Hallam, a Democrat, said the county went out on a limb in agreeing to work with Midwest Direct, and wants a more thorough process in contracting with companies that handle election business.

“The entire process lacked transparency," Hallam said. “There was no consulting any elected officials on the Board of Elections.”

Midwest Direct did not respond to questions regarding errors in Pennsylvania, but shared a news release stating that the company had sent out all ballots for the election.

“We are proud of our team’s efforts in processing this unprecedented number of ballots in the short time we had to complete them, and we thank them for their diligent efforts,” Midwest Direct CEO Richard Gebbie said in a statement.

Allegheny County Elections Division Manager David Voye said during an October meeting that Midwest Direct was “affiliated” with its ballot printer, and the printer recommended the firm to the county for mailing services in May.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said despite Midwest Direct’s recent error, its role in the county’s June primary helped officials conduct a successful election.

“My assumption is that Midwest probably picked up a lot of business based on their performance with Allegheny County in the primary,” Fitzgerald said.

About 10 days before the June primary, Voye said the elections division was falling behind in sending out a high volume of mail-in ballots, the quasi early-voting system passed by the legislature in 2019.

“We were struggling to keep our heads above water, when we were manually making these kits of envelopes, pulling ballots manually, folding them, stuffing them in envelopes,” he said.

Midwest Direct mailed more than 125,000 ballots “in the last nine or 10 days leading up to the primary, and they were all done correctly. You know, they really bailed us out,” Voye said.

According to the terms of the state’s COSTARS program, vendors like RBM can hire subcontractors so long as they have the local government’s written consent. Primary contractors are also responsible for any errors made by subcontractors.

Todd Mullen, an account manager and sales agent at RBM, declined to comment when reached by phone. Other attempts to contact the company went unanswered.

Sam DeMarco, a Republican member of Allegheny County Council and of the county’s elections board, said in retrospect, perhaps a contract with RBM or Midwest Direct should have been voted on by elected officials, but elections staff have broad authority to administer elections under the county executive.

“I can’t tell elections what to do,” DeMarco said, referring to the division of elections.

DeMarco also defended Midwest Direct despite its error. He said when he worked at IKON Office Solutions, a company that provided printing equipment and services to businesses, Midwest Direct was a reputable firm in the industry.

Moreover, DeMarco said the COSTARS system does not include “fly-by-night providers.”

“There are a lot of folks that can take shots at them, but I don’t see them coming to the table and offering solutions or an offer of who they would’ve used instead, and any guarantee that they wouldn’t have made a mistake,” he said.

When asked at the most recent elections board meeting if the county will be able to receive any reimbursement or discount for the work as a result of the mailing error, Voye said county officials have discussed the matter with Midwest Direct.

“The subject has come up, but we don’t have anything in writing or firm yet,” he said. “But that’s definitely something we’re definitely going to look into.”

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