As Nebraska voters go to the polls Tuesday in the primary election, few may realize that an Omaha experiment 40 years ago launched what has become the largest election company in the world.
That Omaha firm today is ES&S, or Election Systems & Software. But in 1976 it was little more than an idea hatched by a 28-year-old whose family had owned an iconic Omaha burger joint — Todd’s Drive-In.
Bob Urosevich recalled taking ACT/SAT tests in high school and using a pencil to fill in ovals for answers. The tests were graded by optical scanners.
Omaha and Salt Lake City were the largest places still counting election ballots by hand. Other locales used levers and the later-infamous punch cards, with their dimpled and hanging chads.
Urosevich, who in the ’70s sold Douglas County the paper on which ballots were printed, figured that scanners could count votes faster and more accurately. So in 1975 he approached Mike Boyle, the Douglas County election commissioner.
“I talked to Bobby quite a bit and listened,” Boyle recalls. “He asked if I’d be willing to look at a sample.”
They drove to Iowa City and saw a demonstration that Urosevich had set up with the Westinghouse Learning Corp., which normally graded exams.
“We marked sample ballots and sent them through the optical scanner,” Boyle said. “I was knocked out, and said ‘This is really terrific.’ ”
On the way home, Urosevich asked if Boyle would try it in a real election. With approval from the County Board, he did so in just a slither of the May 1976 primary — the election of delegates to the national political conventions.
On election day, The World-Herald reported that the experiment was attracting national interest. Votes were counted in a scanner in a semitrailer.
The system worked, and a company was born.
Back then the company was called Data Mark Systems, and it got a contract to count the entire November election in Douglas County.
The good thing, Boyle said, is that the technology didn’t directly affect voters, who continued using pencils to mark ballots.
But with the new system, vote counts were speeded up, required fewer election workers and improved accuracy.
The old system, he said, “was tedious and very open to common mistakes, like transposing numbers.”
An important advantage of the new system, said Boyle, who later served as mayor of Omaha and today is a Douglas County Board member, was that paper ballots could be kept for possible recounts.
Bob Urosevich began selling his product elsewhere, including to Sarpy County, and in 1978 made his first hire: an IBM salesman in Colorado named Todd Urosevich.
Yes, he was Bob’s younger brother by three years, and the namesake of the family’s old drive-in restaurant at 77th and Dodge Streets. Teenagers and young adults had flocked there from 1957 to 1969, sometimes waiting a half-hour to get in.
It had more than 60 stalls with speakerphones for ordering. Todd’s Drive-In was emblematic of the culture captured in the classic film “American Graffiti.”
The Urosevich brothers had worked at Todd’s, owned by their father, Steve. Bob (class of 1966) and Todd (1969) played sports at Westside High before heading to college out of town.
By the time they reunited in Omaha in 1978, the company Bob founded was still fledgling.
In 1979 he got an infusion of capital from a family friend with Omaha roots, California millionaire William Ahmanson. The company’s name was changed to American Information Systems.
By the 1984 presidential election year, the company had nine employees and made its first profit.
Americans didn’t pay much attention to the mechanics of elections until 2000, the year that a presidential race seemed to hang on the hanging chads of Florida voting punch cards.
George W. Bush and Al Gore finished close to 50-50 in the state that would decide the election. And it wasn’t decided until the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the Florida recount and allow the state’s previous certification of Bush as the winner.
During the recount, images of election workers holding punch-card ballots close to their eyes and trying to determine if a hanging chad should be counted or not became a national embarrassment.
Said Todd Urosevich: “Our industry fundamentally changed after 2000.”
Congress soon passed the Help America Vote Act, providing billions for states and counties to improve voting. Punch cards were eliminated.
Interest in touch-screen voting rose but then receded after critics noted the absence of a paper trail — there were no separate paper ballots.
“In the last six to eight years,” Todd said, “the trend has been back to paper ballots, simply because of the distrust that a totally electronic ballot is not recountable.”
Something else happened after 2000: criticism of the Urosevich brothers.
American Information Systems had become ES&S in 1997 after the acquisition of a competitor. Three years earlier, Bob Urosevich had left the company he founded and joined Global Election Systems, which then merged with Diebold Corp.
Todd is a vice president of ES&S and its Northeast U.S. regional sales manager. Critics said the brothers’ two companies controlled a majority of the vote count in U.S. elections, and said they had the ability to rig elections.
I asked Todd on Friday exactly how many elections he and his brother had rigged.
“If you believe what you read on the Internet,” he said, “practically all of them. But the answer is none.”
Most of the “conspiracy theorists,” he said, raised questions from about 2004 to 2010, but that has faded away.
“I told many of my friends, and most importantly my clients, that if any of that was true, I’d be retired,” Todd said. “But I’m still working Monday through Friday.”
Bob Urosevich is retired and living in Omaha. A sister, Sueann Devereaux, works in the programming department at ES&S.
Headquarters are at 11208 John Galt Blvd., southwest of 108th and L Streets. CEO Tom Burt, a Nebraska native and graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University, said the company has 460 employees, about 300 of whom work in Omaha.
Formerly with the Omaha-based Gallup Organization, Burt joined ES&S eight years ago and became CEO at the start of 2015. The company is owned primarily by the McCarthy Group of Omaha. (The World-Herald held a minority stake from 1987 to 2011.)
ES&S is privately held, and Burt declined to disclose revenue amounts.
In 2014 the company said it supported more than 2,400 counties and about 8,000 election events. Its largest client was New York City, with more than 5 million voters, and its smallest was Arthur County, Nebraska, with 336 voters.
ES&S provides various types of election equipment, Burt said, and doesn’t try to push any certain kind on state and county election officials.
“We support the execution of free and fair elections,” he said. “As it’s explained to us by our customers, there is a growing desire to have a paper record of the voter’s intent in the event of a recount or any sort of issues, so they can always go back to the original.”
Voters in the Omaha area and elsewhere tomorrow will take an old-fashioned pencil to ballot and fill in an oval, which will be read by an optical scanner. Just as folks did 40 years ago.
Bob Urosevich’s idea worked and has stood the test of time.
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